Tag: audience development

Let’s Take Young Audiences Seriously

John Liberatore sitting at a piano with an overlay of the NewMusicBox Tool Box logo

Who doesn’t love Frog and Toad?  One of my favorites is a story where both of the title characters sneak over to the other’s house to rake leaves, hoping to surprise their friend with the kind gesture. On the way home, unbeknownst to either of them, a gust of wind scatters the leaf piles back across both lawns.  When each character gets home, they resolve to rake their own leaves the next day, and both Frog and Toad go to sleep that night feeling happy about their act of kindness. Adrianne Lobel, daughter of Frog and Toad author Arnold Lobel, suggests that her father’s famous amphibian duo was the beginning of his own coming out.  Toad is such a curmudgeon, but Frog treats him with loving kindness, and together they bring out the best in each other. At its core, the Frog and Toad series is about what it means to love someone—a complicated message, distilled to the vocabulary of a first-grader.

Lobel has been on my mind lately because, for the past few months, I’ve been touring with the American Wild Ensemble, presenting an all-ages program we’re calling “Wild Imagination.” My contribution to this program is a 30-minute monodramatic adaptation of Arnold Lobel’s Owl at Home, a beautifully imaginative, but lesser-known entry in the Lobel treasury.  In my piece, called Owl in Five Stories, a narrator recites an animated rendition of the book, acting out Owl’s whimsical adventures with an original musical score.

Children sit and musicians perform as John Liberatore narrates in a performance of his Owl in Five Stories

From a performance of John Liberatore’s Owl in Five Stories. From left to right: Emlyn Johnson, Daniel Ketter, Tiffany Valvo, John Liberatore.
Photo credit: Jeff Burkhead. Photo used with parental permission.

Many times after a performance, an audience member has said to me some variation of the following: “You’re reaching the audience of tomorrow.”  I appreciate this sentiment, but internally I push back. I’m reaching the audience of today.  “The audience of tomorrow” suggests that, someday, the kids in the audience will grow up and go to a concert, and then they will be real listeners, not just kids. I hope the kids go to another concert someday. I hope the adults do too. But they came today, and that should count.

A room full of five-year-olds, the wisdom goes, can’t distinguish a Jessye Norman from a Florence Foster Jenkins. Their approval doesn’t count for your tenure dossier because no credible record attests that you performed at a high level, outshining your peers. A stigma forms around family programming as a result, as if it’s not worth the attention of someone with serious musical aspirations. But if we want to make our practice more inclusive and reach a broader audience, we need to perform and write music for spaces and people that don’t offer validation in the form of prestige.

Many artists, organizations, and institutions respond to this charge with excellent and innovative family programming. But this stigma still materializes in a certain brand of “family programming,” which I believe still dominates the forum. It leads to lukewarm afternoon programs of unrehearsed Classical Clichés with an itinerant, underpaid assistant conductor. It’s treated more like community service than serious programming, hardly a forum for innovation or real musical expression. It’s like Puffin Rock—it keeps kids busy, and it’s tolerable. This mindset comes to characterize family programming for a lot of us, so we don’t think much about it, or at least I didn’t until recently.

Since at least the 1960s, when children’s literature was just starting to gain recognition as a commercial market, some publishers have enforced a controlled vocabulary[1] on their authors.  Today, Lexile scores empirically calculate the exact parameters of a child’s vocabulary, and many publishers expressly limit the words authors can use. Controlled vocabulary has its pedagogical uses, for sure, but not everything directed at kids needs to be pedagogical. In 1977, interviewer Roni Natov asked Arnold Lobel about whether his own work used a controlled vocabulary. He responded:

I wouldn’t dream of it. … I think of trying to express myself in the simplest fashion I can, but I won’t stop and not use a word that is a little longer, if there’s not a simpler word. … I’ve used words like “avalanche,” and “beautiful,” because there just isn’t another word that I could gracefully exchange them for … Once [kids] bite into reading, they’ll read anything. Once they are enjoying it, nothing stops them, even if they come to a word that they have to sort of sound out and fight with a bit.

The Classical Cliché approach to family programming subscribes to a belief that kids only grasp easily-singable melodies and stock emotions, a tepid controlled vocabulary of musical meanings. Like Lobel, I’m suggesting that we move beyond this mindset, and recognize youth programming as a serious and energizing forum for creativity.

Writing in The Atlantic, George Saunders suggested that when a piece of writing moves you, the author “imagined you generously, and you rose to the occasion.”  Saunders uses Tolstoy as an example, but the same could be said about Lobel. It’s often said that a work speaks to the “inner child” within an adult. But some work speaks to the “inner grownup” within the child. Lobel imagined kids generously.  He created characters with quirks and foibles and emotions, and he told stories with complicated messages. And kids rise to the occasion.

Contrary to popular wisdom, I do believe that kids can discern a truly special performance from a mediocre one. I think kids know when they’re being talked down to. They just don’t express their feelings through the same channels as adults. In writing Owl, I never felt like I was dumbing anything down. I was preoccupied with all the same challenges and obsessions that interest me when writing any piece of music. The piece even has some of those new music bonafides like multiphonics, whistle-tones, and metric modulations. It’s a demanding score written for invested performers. The challenge of writing the piece was not so much about limiting my vocabulary, but rather one of clarity. Like Lobel said, I tried to find the simplest, most direct way of speaking in the moment. I found it hugely rewarding, and I realized that family programming is full of opportunities for composers and performers.

Five such opportunities come to mind:

One: Youth programming has a built-in and deeply appreciative audience. As a musician and university professor, I have to pick and choose what events I go to, attending to my work-life balance and various obligations.  As the father of school-age children, I face the opposite challenge. I want my children to have memorable experiences, and, well… I don’t want to deal with bored children on weekends. So while I am reluctantly turning down concert invitations as a professional, I am actively seeking them as a parent. If a family-friendly event also caters to my musical interests, you can bet that I’ll be there, and I’ll bring three kids in tow. That’s four people in the audience, instead of one. Or zero. This also addresses issues of inclusion for parents in New Music, which Emily Doolittle called attention to (from the perspective of motherhood) in her much-recommended 2017 article on NewMusicBox. Furthermore, parenthood is a much more cross-cultural experience than mine as a composer and professor. Which brings me to my next point.

Two: It’s inclusive. Much has been said about the unwelcoming atmosphere at Classical Music concerts. “No clapping between movements” is a favorite bugaboo for such editorials. Really, though, sitting in your chair with the lights dimmed, program in hand, while someone plays a piece, and then clapping while the person bows—that in itself is a set of cultural conventions that some people find alienating.[2] Regardless, any preconceived notions of concert etiquette go out the window when kids are involved.  Kids have episodes, they run around, they crinkle candy wrappers and juice-box straws… and it’s okay. The music is still wholly appreciated, even by seasoned concertgoers, and maybe a little less ossified in the process. This kind of environment goes a long way toward breaking down cultural barriers to entry in music performance. Especially when such events are offered for free, or by optional donation, family programming has far greater potential for cross-cultural and socioeconomic inclusion than traditional programming.

Three: It invests in community. It’s not just outreach or community building. The experience of the music by those present matters. But it’s also not just a concert. It’s an impression, potentially a very lasting one, upon people less inured to live performance than most listeners who hear my music. Such programming builds awareness about contemporary music among unlikely supporters, so that maybe our next underground new music festival might be a little less removed from public awareness, and a little more welcoming. More importantly, it’s an investment in the kids who see it, many of whom might otherwise never see a professional flutist up close, or learn that there’s such a thing as a bass clarinet, or that a cello is different from a violin. Who knows what impact these encounters might have? In what other context are we so poised to make such a profound impact on even one of our listeners?

Four: Reaching young audiences promotes (and requires) creative approaches to curation as well as composition. As an example, the Danish experimental music ensemble Scenatat developed a series of Concert Walks with support from the now-defunct European agency New:Aud, an organization once dedicated to connecting Europe’s premiere new-music ensembles with young audiences. Such events don’t need to be child-centric to be child-friendly.[3] In all sectors of the New Music world right now, people are engaged with the question: what can a concert be? Bringing youth and families into this discussion is a major catalyst for creativity.

For my fifth and final point, I defer to the wisdom of Frog and Toad. In “The Dream,” the last story in Frog and Toad Together, Toad dreams himself on a stage in a huge auditorium where only Frog sits in the audience.[4] A strange voice announces “THE GREATEST TOAD IN ALL THE WORLD.”

Toad took a deep bow.
Frog looked smaller as he shouted,
‘Hooray for Toad!’
said the strange voice.

Toad played the piano,
and he did not miss a note.
‘Frog,’ cried Toad,
‘can you play the piano like this?’
‘No,’ said Frog.
It seemed to Toad
that Frog looked even smaller.

As the story goes on, Toad shows off a number of astounding feats, while Frog grows smaller and smaller, until he eventually disappears. The more Toad boasts and shows off, the more he (literally) belittles Frog, and the more he distances himself from what matters, until he loses it completely. Talk about a complex message for young readers.

I’m guessing anybody trying to make a go at a career in the performing arts understands the exhaustion of perpetual one-upmanship. We are all under such pressure to “count”—to add to those dreary lists of names, venues, awards, and commissions that, if we’re lucky, render our professional bios unreadable. Yes, this is a terribly unhealthy fallacy, which I know to be irrational and destructive, but which I confess remains lodged somewhere in my composer id. The thing is, kids don’t care about any of that, and it’s just so wonderfully refreshing. They don’t care if you’re the greatest toad in all the world. They do care about sincerity, directness, and honesty. They know when someone is taking them seriously. It’s a very healthy exercise as an individual and as a community to pause and take stock of how we might try to communicate something important to children.

Many other reasons to invest in family-friendly New Music could be added to this list, some of which I have touched upon, and others which deserve their own articles: accessibility, cultural impact, activism, and even economic reasons come to mind. Fundamentally, though, each of these reasons comes back to the same point: Music, and New Music especially, is about community. Obviously, not all events, aesthetics, and messages are suitable for children. My next few projects are not expressly written for young audiences. But having spent so much creative energy over the last year with young audiences in mind, I believe I have grown as a composer and a person. I believe our community will grow stronger if we take young audiences more seriously.[5]

[1] I apologize for the irony of linking to JSTOR here, since I realize that not everyone has access to it. Still, the concept of Controlled Vocabulary is fairly ubiquitous and easily investigated through search engines.

[2] Whether or not Classical Music describes what we do, many of the readers of this blog will surely participate in events that share at least some of these conventions. It’s fine—I love these kinds of concerts! But the experience is far from universal.

[3] Quite a bit of what makes an event family-friendly has to do with presentation, and not repertoire per se. I thank Emily Doolittle for making this point, both in her aforementioned article, and in personal correspondence. In this article, I am primarily talking about the creation and performance of kid-friendly repertoire, leaving suggestions for presentation to other writers. Though as projects like Concert Walks demonstrate, content and presentation are not always separable, and family-centric programming encourages us to think this way.

[4] I sympathize with Toad’s low turnout in proportion to the size of the venue.

[5] I’d like to thank Emlyn Johnson, Daniel Ketter, and Tiffany Valvo for bringing Wild Imagination to life, and for our conversations that led to this article.

Do You Hear What I See?

Allen Otte's set up for Begin Again (photo courtesy Allen Otte)

I spent my youth playing notes on a page. And if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you did too. This notation, particular for what we think of as Western music, is merely one graphic, albeit specific, representation of musical sound. And some of it is quite pleasingly arranged on the page, with calligraphy and shaped staves. But connections of music to visual art are as old as music notation itself.

Chant was notated with beautiful framing on the pages. Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition translates the paintings of Richard Hartmann just as Debussy’s La Mer is a sonic response to Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa. William Grant Still took as his subject works by Richmond Barthé, Sargent Johnson, and Augusta Savage in his Suite for Violin and Piano. Gian Carlo Menotti broke through his writer’s block when he visited Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi to come up with perennial holiday favorite Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Lady Gaga was likewise inspired by the same artist’s Birth of Venus for her own “Venus.”

These visual connections give the listener a starting point for understanding, which is especially useful in the field of experimental music. What is unidentifiable sonically can trigger a memory or a feeling when it’s attached to a visual. A visual that inspires the composer or improviser is sure to also inspire audiences to a fuller and more moving experience.

A visual that inspires the composer or improviser is sure to also inspire audiences to a fuller and more moving experience.

The Kentler International Drawing Center is driving this connection home with its now-touring exhibition Music as Image and Metaphor. The Kentler Flatfiles have been accessible to Brooklyn visitors for three decades, and curators planned to bring a selection of the collection to the Bartlett’s Center in Columbus, GA this past year. This would have combined with performances by composer/pianist Michael Kowalski and percussionist/composer Allen Otte via the music department at Columbus State University.

In a dilemma familiar to many last year, by October 2020 it was decided that the plans had to change. But Kowalski and Otte did not completely abandon the concert – they instead created a lasting musical installation, able to reach far more visitors than a single performance, with an opening in January 2021. For 40 pieces from the collection, Kowalski and Otte would create individual short musical responses. 40 new pieces of music, connected to visual works, accessible in the gallery and also online. A setup that allows the visitor to absorb themselves in the aesthetic conversation, or, exist within the infinity mirror of creativity.

Both Kowalski and Otte, as well as curators David Houston and Florence Neal, were happy with the result, and now the exhibition is headed to the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi, MS this month.

Allen Otte is a member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. With the Black Earth and later Percussion Group Cincinnati he has been on the cutting edge of percussion-based chamber music. (Note: the author is a former student of Allen Otte.) Michael Kowalski was a pioneer of computer-based composition, who moved from chamber music to opera when he founded The Postindustrial Players. The two overlapped as students at Oberlin, and have collaborated before. But while being quite like-minded artistically, their approaches could best be described as opposites.

Knowing the likely answer, I asked both men if it was easier to write one 20-minute piece or 20 one-minute pieces.

Otte found the episodic nature delightful. “I could boom, you know, get an idea, make a response and not be responsible for actually much more than than the idea and the response. And in a minute or 90 seconds, it’s gone.” Percussion being an area where less is more in many cases likely made this more intuitive. “If it were twenty one minutes from me, I would have been uncomfortable,” he said. But he had expected Kowalski, who lists “composer” first among his occupations, to keep the game at a high level.

Kowalski agreed that the two are of a different mind, and thinks an attentive listener could take note of different kinds of craftsmanship happening. But that’s part of the fun, “because you don’t get in one person’s groove and stay there. It takes 45 or 50 minutes to actually hear the whole thing. If you just walk through the show and spend a minute on every piece, that’s how long it would take.”

Guests can take a tour through the exhibition, listening to pieces inspired by each piece of art. There is no stated theme, and no planned progression. The locations in Columbia and Biloxi are set up differently, with the images in a different order, so if a story can be extrapolated, it will be different than any other version of the exhibition. This includes an online visit, which can of course be in any order one likes.

In the compositional process, nearly opposite approaches were both successful.

Kowalski outlined specific procedures for himself, almost like a game:

Music as image:

  • Provide a soundtrack (as if the image is a film) or
  • Use the image as a graphic score

Or music as metaphor:

  • If the artist were making music, what would this image sound like? or
  • Enter a dialogue with the visual art

Random selection of these approaches created structure – more of a puzzle to solve and less of a blank page. And he applied these four procedures with a simple shuffle of the deck – mostly sticking to whatever process came up, no matter the image.

Otte was more intuitive, keeping a chart of the images he had an immediate reaction to, and curating himself from there: asking “whether I was doing too much of one kind of thing and whether I really ought to find a way to push myself to think about a piece in a different way.”

Both Otte and Kowalski spent time studying with composer Herbert Brün, who was a pioneer of graphic notation, and who is also represented as a visual artist in the Flatfiles. In Otte’s hands, responding to Brün’s piece was unexpectedly his most difficult assignment.

Three computer generated graphics by Herbert Brün

Three computer generated graphics by Herbert Brün–Orchestra Model One (1971), Ensemble Analogue Four (1974), and Web I (1971), image courtesy Kentler International Drawing Center.

“Herbert’s piece was one of the hardest ones to do and one of the last ones that I came up with,” he said. But also pointed out that throughout the project, difficulty often yielded a better result. This is possibly because some of the pictures presented a challenge, or because the challenge demanded more time be taken, and led to more self-questioning. Of Brün’s work he noted, “Well, actually, that’s the one that’s somewhat strong, that has some substance to it.”

Hear Otte’s response to Brün’s Orchestra Model One here.

For Kowalski, who is a white man, this challenge came in the form of an image of musicians at New York’s iconic Five Spot by biracial artist Robin Holder. His randomly selected procedure was to create a soundtrack – something that could easily have come across as an appropriation.

Five Spot 2 is one of the more literal images in the entire exhibition, so there was no way to ignore what was in it.

Five Spot 2 is one of the more literal images in the entire exhibition, so there was no way to ignore what was in it. “I had to be honest and embrace that. So that was a toughie.” So in this one case, he did break his procedural “rules,” writing what he felt was a more appropriate musical response. He also recruited an ensemble. Once again, having to think a little harder being a good impulse “that just forced me to come up with something else, maybe something better.”

Robin Holder's drawing of a group of jazz musicians playing instruments and singing.

Robin Holder: Five Spot 2, stencil monotype, 22″x30″ (2005), image courtesy Kentler International Drawing Center.

Hear Kowalski’s response to Five Spot 2 here.

While the ensemble was an enjoyable addition to the project, one standout is fairly minimal, as Otte responds to art by Mary Judge using just an amplified pencil.

The museum’s notes call the music “often surprising, sometimes baffling, always illuminating.” The connection between the 40 works chosen (out of 2000 options) by David Houston and Florence Neal is up to the beholder.  The same can be said about the pieces of music.

Otte felt a connection with the works by relating to what he called the performative aspect of an artist–the idea of still engaging an audience while the visual artist’s work remains still. Whereas Kowalski found a kinship with the act of creation – making a picture being analogous to making a sound. Different results, but the mindset implies a similar procedure.

All of which are ideas that can apply to other visuals when they combine with music–especially dance, where both Otte and Kowalski have a great deal of experience.

“I can only say that I’ve been, more often than not, astounded at what dancers are hearing in music and how they experience music and it’s often fascinating,” Otte said. In his experience dancers may give apologies for not “knowing” an appropriate musical term, while their assessment of the piece is generally quite insightful.

Kowalski also noted the complexity of choreography as a visual form: existing in three dimensions and moving. “If you’re sitting beyond about row 12, you’re seeing a great deal of usually very complicated forms, tracing patterns, on a fairly large stage.”

A previous collaboration between the two featured this interaction. Kowalski wrote a piece for the Percussion Group Cincinnati called Rebus, which includes choreography with flag signals. Initially composing a storyboard, once again the visual existed before the sounds. But, that piece was quite concrete – something Kowalski has always found essential working with dancers.

“Unlike musicians, dancers don’t notate, usually they don’t go into a rehearsal with a bunch of things in their head already,” he pointed out. “They work it out. It’s a very different way of working from most musicians that I know.”

There is no one right way to do a project like this. But like any collaboration, trust must be involved. If the creators are open and welcoming to each other’s vision, then brilliant combinations are possible. If we were to call the visual and the musical participants “sides” of the equation – the sides have to balance, and be somewhat open to the other’s contributions. Kowalski describes this as a tension, much like a conversation. But to be successful, each factor, visual and musical alike, must point to the other.

There is no one right way to do a project like this. But like any collaboration, trust must be involved.

“Some people dig it more visual, and then they get into the music and the other people the other way around, and I just think that’s ideal,” he explained. “I’m very happy about that.”

Despite their different approaches, both musicians planned and charted and graphed to create each of these responses. Otte describes the planning as a math problem. “The calculations that went into that final one minute; that final 60 seconds repeated for each of us 20 times in one way or another.” But also occasionally the minute of music came quickly and easily. “The ones which just came in in some burst of fun, we stuck with a few of those.”

Otte and Kowalski will be live at the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum for a talk and performance of even three more premieres. Forms of falling dust is a work for prepared yang-qin by Rachel C. Walker, a former student of Otte. Another collaboration between Otte and Kowalski called How To Compose Yourself involves a fairly frenzied piano part with percussive commentary. And the concert includes a new iteration of Begin Again, a work by Kowalski whose material stretches from the year 1597 to 1977 and now to 2021. In Begin Again a treatise by Thomas Morley was interpreted on an IBM computer by Ed Miller. A 1977 rendition included the voice of soprano Marlene Rosen, and this version it will include today’s additions from Otte and Kowalski.

The act of drawing on decades of material is part of what makes the project feel so substantial. Music originally created on an IBM the size of a linen closet, being watched and heard on a phone that fits in my hand, still feels fresh and new in this context. And while these pieces of music once again come to life thanks to fresh realizations, they also have renewed meaning thanks to the pairing with another artist’s visual material.

Music originally created on an IBM the size of a linen closet, being watched and heard on a phone that fits in my hand, still feels fresh and new in this context.

The clichés about art and music would tell us that the two aesthetic forms are bound to go together. I leaned into one of these, by Jean-Michel Basquiat, in my conversation with Otte and Kowalski.

“Art is how we decorate space. Music is how we decorate time.”

“Decoration,” said Otte. “That’s a loaded word.” Kowalski objected as well.

But at the surface level he immediately conceded that music could be “delightful if it is in fact decorative and entertaining.” And Kowalski identified “entertaining” as a secret word.

“That’s the word that overlaps: ‘decoration,’” Kowalski said. “Decoration is congenial and attractive and so is entertainment when it’s any good, I think. And so I would use the word ‘shape’ instead of ‘decorate.’”

So Basquiat is possibly correct, depending on what the music has to say. Whether or not you can welcome the word “decorate” for a serious piece of music is up to you, just as whether or not a piece of art “shapes” your space. And the fact that we’ve returned to these kinds of philosophical artistic conversations is another sign that we’re emerging from the harshest closure in the history of music with our thoughtfulness intact.

Development: musical image / Michael Kowalski's music sketches for "Untitled" by Kazuhiro Nishijima

Development: musical image / Michael Kowalski’s music sketches for “Untitled” by Kazuhiro Nishijima, images courtesy Kentler International Drawing Center.

As a pandemic-pivot, this project was enormously successful in that some music-making happened at all. While the music world navigates a bumpy road to a new normalcy, this project is quite possibly a model. Not just of the value of interdisciplinary connections, but also one of flexibility and access.

While the music world navigates a bumpy road to a new normalcy, this project is quite possibly a model.

Music as Image and Metaphor has visual and aural elements that are complete statements on their own. It can be experienced at an individual level, at one’s own pace. And it’s available in varying degrees of in-person participation, including online. And geographically, it has been available to viewers in the southeastern USA. While the Kentler Flatfiles reside in Brooklyn, they have been available in this form to viewers in Georgia and Mississippi. Modeling and sparking conversations – musical dialogues – that allow us to grow our audience, our depth as artists, and our own creativity.

40 Flatfiles down, 1,960 to go.


This exhibition of the Kentler Flatfiles includes pieces by the following visual artists: Herbert Brün, Beth Caspar, Phillip Chen, Abby Goldstein, Takuji Hamanaka, Keiko Hara, robin holder, Richard Howe, Hannah Israel, Mary Judge, Kazuhiro Nishijima, Ralph Kiggell, Rosalinda Kolb, Jiří Kornatovský, Robert Lansden, Simon Lewandowski, Jim Napierala, Florence Neal, Margaret Neill, Morgan O’Hara, Gahae Park, Jaanika Peerna, Scott Pfaffman, Orlando Richards, Susan Schwalb, Viviane Rombaldi Seppey, Molly Snyder-Fink, and Hugh Williams.

Livestream Community Survey: What We Learned from the Field

Three members of the [Switch ~ Ensemble] playing instruments and an additional person operating a laptop for a livestream

A January 2021 full broadcast performance from Switch~ in residence at UT Austin for 5 telematic world premieres: Nathan Nokes’s Co-Opt (2020); Ian Whillock’s void (2020); Geli Li’s Long Nights (2020); Monte Taylor’s Zoetrope (2020) and Lydia Wayne Chang’s Project Agree: Mission for the Internet Communities (2020) (All works performed by the [Switch~ Ensemble] telematically on December 1 & 2, 2020.)

In August 2020, the [Switch~ Ensemble] led a Community Survey about the habits, preferences, and interests of concert-goers for livestreams. We are pleased to provide a summary of the responses, as well as recommendations based on our analysis of the data.

We publicized the survey through direct email marketing and in our social media. Several organizations, including New Music USA, helped boost the reach of our announcements through their channels. In total we had 52 respondents. Responses were collected in a Google form.

The first section of the survey helped us have a baseline for who was responding. Respondents tended to reflect [Switch~]’s audience overall, including a significant number of other musicians and industry insiders. One-third of respondents indicated they are “very familiar” with [Switch~], and the average survey respondent had a relative fluency in music technology. One shortcoming in the breadth of responses was that none of the respondents identified as disabled/having a disability. So, for example, we do not have the perspective of anyone who is blind/low vision or deaf/hard-of-hearing and their experiences trying to navigate video livestream performances.

Two further sections asked detailed questions about past attendance and preferences for future engagement and opportunities.

In the months between survey and publication of this essay, vaccines raced from experimentation to delivery, indicating a return to concert halls may come in the next 6–9 months. Yet, livestreaming and virtual interaction have been around for some time and are undoubtedly here to stay. While there is no substitute for in-person interaction, livestreams do have significant benefits. They can allow us to reduce our carbon footprint, invest more in artists and less in plane tickets, and more equitably engage in collaborations with artists from across the country and around the world.


  • Livestreams are a lifeline for connecting with friends and/or artists you like. Strong results in this area is the most important predictor of success.
  • Improving the standard of production value and audio quality are critical for the ecosystem.
  • There is some skepticism of the value of livestreamed shows, which ensembles are inadvertently exacerbating through their marketing and messaging. Instead, we should be building trust in broadcast performances as a valuable way to experience music.
  • There is a growing divide between those in the habit of regularly attending livestream performances and those who are not. From initial marketing to concert time, each cohort has different needs when it comes to helping them feel welcome, supported, and engaged.
  • Repertoire choices matter a good deal, in complex ways. Respondents seem well-aware we are all in uncharted waters, and that the sky is the limit for imagination and innovation. There is great interest in new works, premieres, and using this opportunity to work on repairing longstanding issues around equity and the exclusion of talented artists.
  • People are not always forthright or self-aware in what drives their attendance or interest, and tastes can change quickly. Accordingly, some information is curious if not self-contradictory. This topic has a long history, notably: the Ford Edsel.



Let us pause for a moment and define some terms. We’re defining a livestream as any way of sharing artistic content where the performers and audience aren’t in the same place, but the audience can watch/listen thanks to technology.

A situation where all the performers are in one place and sharing a video stream out to their audience is commonly referred to as a broadcast.

A situation where all the performers are in different places—coordinating by way of teleconferencing software, then sharing a video with their audience—is commonly referred to as a telematic performance. Musicians have been researching these topics for decades. For example, we encourage you to read about Pauline Oliveros and her research in this arena.

Many artists and ensembles are presenting livestreamed performances where the audience observes at the moment of performance. We could call this a synchronous livestream: the music is made and consumed at the same moment, with performers and audience together on a video conference like Zoom.

Others are opting to assemble performances/recordings that are then released on a streaming platform at a later date. We might call this an asynchronous livestream.


For several questions, options ranged from “Really Negative” to “Very Positive” and/or from “Irrelevant” to “Very Important”. To help analyze data quantitatively, “Really Negative” and “Irrelevant” were both assigned a value of 1.0, and “Very Positive” or “Very Important” assigned a 5.0. For example, a quality score of 2.5 and an importance rating of 4.5 would suggest a given feature is of low quality and very important to the experience of a livestream.

A chart comparing responses to the question:

Reflecting on the decisions to attend past livestreams, the most important factor was “get to see friends/colleagues perform”. It scored an average importance 4.3/5.0, with 42% ranking it Important and 48% ranking it Very Important.

That livestreams “Feel like a return to normal” were largely irrelevant, scoring an average of 2.2. There appears to be a collective understanding that “normal” is not possible and that livestreams do not support a sense of normalcy.

Choice of platform was also rather insignificant: an average importance of 2.3, with only 2 Very Important and 14 Irrelevant. A wide range of platforms are popular, with 44 respondents indicating past attendance on YouTube/YouTube Premiere (36), Facebook Live (32), Zoom (25) and Twitch (15). (Respondents could check multiple entries). However, regardless of platform, qualitative comments suggest a strong preference for a flexible schedule of consumption rather than a limited release only at “concert time”.

Generally, when asked to name reasons they would attend a [Switch~] livestream, respondents favored innovative repertoire (40 votes) and to support members (35) above all. A sense of community, “repertoire I know and like”, and interesting ancillary content saw moderate support (15-18), and “feels like a return to normal” saw few (8).

A chart comparing the 3 reasons respondents gave for coming to a livestream event: Innovative repertoire (40); to support members (35); Familiar repertoire (18); Sense of community (17); interviews and presentations (15); feels like a return to normal (8)

These responses support earlier data on the importance of social connections, and elevate the importance of new and excellent repertoire.


We took a deeper dive into consumer preferences with a closer analysis of four questions in particular. (Fair warning, the next few sections get a little wonky!)

  • How important were the following factors to your experience of past livestreams?
  • How did the following factors impact your choice to attend past events?
  • What are some reasons you would RECOMMEND a [Switch~] livestream to a friend
  • What are some reasons you would HESITATE to recommend a [Switch~] livestream to a friend?

The factors considered in each question fell in three analogous buckets:

  • Audio & production quality
  • Getting to see friends or artists you support
  • The content of the performance itself

Separately, all respondents were asked: “Would you recommend a [Switch~] livestream to a friend?” as a yes/no/maybe question. In the following sections, we’ll talk about two groups: those who answered this question yes (we’ll call them advocates) and those who answered maybe (we’ll call them fence sitters). The cohort of respondents that indicated they attended 4-or-more prior livestreams will also be frequently compared against the cohort that attended few-to-none.



A chart comparing responses to these 2 questions:

As mentioned above, audio quality had the greatest impact on experience but the lowest quality score. This is a problem, as it appears to be eroding trust that livestreams are worth going to.

Audio quality was nearly unanimous in importance but respondents were displeased with its success. The average importance was 4.4/5.0. However, most found the success rate poor (3.0). Production and technical skill, more broadly, were very important too (an average of, 4.1, with 14 Very Important, and 0 Irrelevant) but also saw a mediocre score for quality (3.3).

Scores around 3.0 may seem average, but, generally, consumers tend to be optimistic when filling out surveys like these. For example, the Net Promoter Score used by many Fortunate 500 corporations considers a score less than 7 on a 1-10 scale to be a “Detractor”. Accordingly, anything at or below 3.0 on our scale warrants some concern.

So, we’ll start with the bad news: the level of satisfaction with audio quality warrants some concern. The single-lowest quality score assessed by any group (2.7) was on audio quality, from those who attend few-to-no livestreams. 2.7 is even lower than the already troubling score to this question overall (3.0). This perceived lack of quality from the cohort of few-to-no show-goers is particularly significant as it suggests we are either losing audience members or that they don’t attend at all due to threshold fear of an undesirable experience.

Interestingly, our group of fence-sitters had more favorable views of the audio quality in livestreams they attended than just about any other cohort (!), with above average (3.2) sense of quality and equivalent sense of importance (4.3). A separate question on “Production/technical quality” saw similar results, with fence sitters holding slightly more favorable views on average.

So, why are they on the fence? Data suggest that, as a group, they report a significantly lower sense of quality experience getting to see friends or artists or they know.

“Got to see friends &a colleagues” was generally positive (4.2) and influential to the experience (4.2). This was most true for advocates (4.5 & 4.5, respectively), and for attendees of 4+ prior shows (4.3 & 4.2). But responses grew more tepid with those who had attended few-to-none (4.0 & 4.1) and most of all with the fence sitters (3.8 & 3.7)—i.e. those who hesitate to suggest a livestream show to a friend.

Taken all together, we see an important distinction: The most important reason people are not going to shows is because audio quality is important to them and it’s bad. The most important reason people are hesitating to recommend them to friends is because they have not felt good about getting to see friends and colleagues in a compelling performance.

A chart comparing the responses to the question:

To see friends and colleagues perform is once again the gold standard. It scored equally highly among survey respondents familiar with [Switch~] and unfamiliar with [Switch~]. In other words, this is a field-wide phenomenon, not a reflection of [Switch~]’s specific fans.

Those who attend livestreams regularly have stronger and more polarized feelings about new works designed for the medium. But, interestingly, the platform matters less to those in the habit of attending more livestreams. The latter were more than twice as likely to name it an Irrelevant feature.

While “Feels like a return to normal” scored badly across the board, it was most influential to those who had attended few to no prior livestreams.

“New works designed for the medium” scored highest among those who use music tech professionally, but a bit less strongly among others. It is logical that experts in the field want to see innovation.

Advocates and fence sitters largely agreed about which features were irrelevant to their experience, but a few key issues separated what did matter to them. Advocates ranked getting to see friends and colleagues perform more highly. And where fence-sitters cared more about getting to see repertoire they know and like (3.5 vs 3.0) advocates had stronger feelings about seeing new works designed for the medium: 27% vs 5% who named it Very Important.

A chart comparing responses to the question: "What are some reasons you would recommend a livestream to a friend?" Answers (very important vs. irrelevant) were: Technical skill (23/0); New works & premieres (9/0); Thoughfulness about equity (18/-4); Interviews/info about the work (5/0); Connection to a member (9/-6); Familiar repertoire (6/-2); and Good marketing (3/-8)

Perhaps predictably, the fence sitters consistently gave more tepid responses to each of the 5-point scale questions compared to the advocates. The most noticeable divergence was with the importance of having a connection to a member (3.8 vs 2.8), with thoughtfulness about equity in programming a close second (4.3 vs 3.5).

But, advocates and fence sitters agreed that getting to see new works and premieres was an important factor. Not a single person deemed this feature irrelevant. The only attribute that fence sitters thought was more important to a recommendation than advocates was “It’s repertoire I know and like.” Perhaps those who are unsure about livestreams feel more comfortable with some familiarity with the repertoire.

Those who have been attending livestreams often were more likely to care about new works and premieres than those who had attended few to none (4.0 vs. 3.6), and less likely to be influenced by knowing a specific member (3.2 vs 3.5). Overall, the number of respondents who named “new works and premieres”, “thoughtfulness about equity”, and “technical skill/quality” as “Very Important” was about 10-15 percentage points higher among those regularly attending livestreams. These therefore seem like 3 key areas for capitalizing on most ardent supporters.

The group of respondents who had attended 4 or more previous livestreams gave relatively similar answers in this section than those who had attended few to none. The greatest average difference was in the importance of good marketing. Just 5% of people who had attended few-to-no livestreams said this feature was irrelevant, compared to 23% of those often attending livestreams. It stands to reason that those regularly in the habit of attending livestreams are less reliant on attractive marketing to get them “off the fence”.

In separate questions, the importance of “New works and premieres” tended to score less favorably than “new works designed for the medium”. At first, that seems a curious finding: the two are functionally synonymous. We believe it suggests some lingering hesitation about livestreams as a medium. The salient takeaway is likely that “come see a world premiere” is a more effective call to action than “come see a new work made for streaming.”

The difference between advocates and fence-sitters was most noticeable when considering the reasons to recommend a livestream. Their responses about reasons for hesitation were similar. In other words, the two groups shared hesitations but the advocates had significantly greater excitement. This suggests the problem is not one of “like and dislike” but rather of excitement versus apathy.

Chart comparing responses to the question: "What are some of the reasons you would hestitate to recommend a livestream to a friend?" Answers (very important vs. irrelevant) were: Ticket price (+12/-5); not enough thinking about equity (+12/-11); don't think livestreams are interesting (+7/-8); worried about technical difficulties (+7/-8); too much conventional repertoire (+5/-9); marketing not engaging (0/-8); and unfamiliar with repertoire (0/-22)

Overall, there is an uphill battle with livestreams: 42% of respondents said they “just don’t think livestreams are interesting” as an important or very important reason they would hesitate to recommend a show.

Those who had attended 4+ prior livestreams had fewer hesitations overall than those who had attended few to none. The greatest variances were around concerns of poor marketing, a lack of familiarity with the repertoire, and technical difficulties: Those who had attended few to no livestreams named them 10-20% more important, on average. While 53% of respondents who regularly attend livestreams said that unfamiliar repertoire was irrelevant in provoking hesitation, just 30% of those who rarely attend livestreams said the same.

What does stand out for the fence-sitting group? Getting to see new works and premieres and a thoughtfulness about equity feature prominently. But technical skill/quality tops the chart with an average of 4.1 and almost 30% of respondents rating it “Very Important” to recommend a show to a friend or colleague.

However, our fence sitters were less willing to admit that concerns about technical difficulties were a source of hesitation. You may also remember earlier data that the fence sitters felt audio & production quality of shows they attended was actually better than average.

In the words of Kenan Thompson, What’s up with that? While this at first seems contradictory, the wording of the questions provides two clues: 1) the concern is not discrete technical difficulties so much as an overall lack of enthusiasm about the quality of livestreams, and 2) the concern is not that something will be bad so much as a reluctance to suggest to someone else that it will be good.

Finally, fence-sitters appear among the most price-sensitive for ticket sales, ranking that more important than average as a source of hesitation. However, in a separate section about the financial impact of COVID, respondents in this group were less negatively impacted than respondents overall. In fact, nearly half of respondents in this group were making similar or more than what they used to, compared to pre-COVID times. Only 14% had lost more than half their income.

Taken together with above data about the poorer sense of connection to known and beloved artists, we believe these data suggest not an inevitable inability to afford shows, but rather a skepticism of their value.

Accordingly, we feel the solution is not ever-cheaper tickets and centering “free show!” in one’s marketing. Rather, the solution may be to earn trust by cultivating excellent content, and hone our skills at naming its value. Whether or not to actually charge for tickets will depend on each ensemble’s community and specific goals, but regardless we should be mindful not to perpetuate a lack of trust in the value of artistic work by centering how “cheap” they are to attend. That might well make it harder to attract audiences.



Marketing and communication can likely play a key role in fostering greater confidence that livestreams will be a compelling concert experience. At the moment, respondents seem to be expressing a gap in trust that livestreamed shows will be a quality experience, which is hindering the sector’s overall ability to connect with audiences in this format.

We know that people are willing to watch performances and listen to music on a laptop or phone: we do it all day long. We would be best served to compete for attention on an axis where we see we have an advantage, like:

  • connect with artists you know and like despite quarantine
  • see friends and colleagues
  • see new musical works and premieres

On the latter point, new music ensembles tend to thrive in ordinary circumstances. However, the logistical constraints of quarantine have challenged many ensembles but empowered others. Improvisers, mixed media artists, and ensembles interested in multimedia have been able to produce new and significant bodies of work. Some groups may not be able to perform right now, and that’s okay too.

On the first two points, there is likely considerable room for growth. How to enhance the possibility for social connection in these events is a rich area for discussion and sharing ideas. When asked if they would want a chance to socialize in a livestream performance, 49% of respondents said yes, 43% said “maybe”, and just 8% said no. A prior familiarity with [Switch~] did not necessarily correspond to increased interest in socializing. The most likely groups to say yes were the “advocates” (those who said “yes” I would recommend a livestream to a friend) and those who had previously attended 4 or more livestreams. The least interested in socializing were the “fence sitters” and those who had attended few to no livestreams. This divide, mentioned elsewhere, suggests a fundamental split between those who have enthusiastically incorporated livestream events into their routine and others who are less skeptical of engaging in that way.

Our colleague Megan Ihnen asked a great question: How can we, the performers, help individuals further foster a sense that they are connecting to the artists they like? Something like a listening party, side-by-side with a pre-recording livestream release, has a lot of merit. Zoom breakout rooms—like cocktail tables at an album release party—could work too. Concerts can’t be everything for everybody all the time. Getting the fence sitters off the fence may require different work than further activating the advocates.

With tools like YouTube Premiere or StreamYard, ensembles have increasingly sophisticated capacity to pre-assemble recordings and release them as though they were live. Interweaving pre-recorded performances with interviews or live questions over Zoom can foster a sense of “liveness”. Specific tactics—like having performers wear the same clothes or film at the same camera angle as their original performance earlier in the week—can enhance it further.

There are a few important factors to note in the marketing and communications of livestreamed concerts that appear to impact attendance significantly.

About 80% of respondents said that at some point since March, they had been interested in a livestream but ultimately did not attend it. Given a list of possible reasons in a multi-choice poll:

  • 31% said they wound up missing the show because they didn’t get a reminder
  • 12% said because there were no tickets or reservations it was easy to skip
  • 22% had technical difficulties
  • 34% said the event was poorly marketed or communicated
  • 61% said they simply “forgot”, as opposed to 31% who “lost interest”

In other sections, respondents indicated they felt marketing had little impact on their choice to attend livestreams. However, given the above data, we believe they may be significantly underestimating its influence on their behavior. When over a third of respondents acknowledge they accidentally missed a show because it was poorly marketed or communicated, the conclusion seems self-evident.

Or, as our colleague Megan Ihnen put it: if a show doesn’t have effective marketing, how did you even know about it?

Some simple best practices could include:

  • Well timed reminders (including day-of) about the show
  • A registration system with personalized link & reminder (like house shows: “RSVP for address”)
  • Charging a small admission fee

The last point is rarely done, and was something respondents are sensitive to in their reasons for hesitating to recommend an event. However, we all know audiences are more than willing to support artists if they believe in the value of the experience. And, as anyone who’s ever worked a box office knows: pre-sales always have a low no-show rate.

A screenshot from a telematic performance by the [Switch~ Ensemble] showing members of the ensemble in separate locations and program notes.

A screenshot from a telematic performance by the [Switch~ Ensemble]


In the long term, being able to produce effective livestreamed and/or telematic performances can hold considerable value for the sector.

A vaccine may be on the horizon, but livestream performances are almost certainly here to stay. Grantors and arts services organizations could fulfill at least 2 key responsibilities:

  1. Grants for ensembles and musicians to acquire at least basic level professional audio equipment. Not only would these investments help enhance our capacity to produce higher-quality virtual events, but so too would they alleviate many longstanding inequitable access issues.
  2. Lead open workshops on technical questions and production/audio skills, and host convenings for ensembles to share best practices. There is no need for so many artists to have to stumble through the same questions in their own silos. Grantors like New Music USA could support trainings and workshops—even “office hours” style drop in sessions—with technical directors and marketing and communications staff of larger organizations who have already seen success in this medium.

Among the many benefits of livestream shows we might count limiting unnecessary travel. How often is the principal beneficiary of an artistic project an airline? It’s also terrible for the environment. While there is no substitute for in-person interaction, vast time, money, and environmental impact is spent flying new music ensembles throughout the country. If even a small share of that travel could be replaced by high quality virtual interaction, it would cut down our outsized carbon footprint and put more money in musicians’ pockets.

Telematic livestreams in particular are also an occasion to consider further experimentation with an innovative and rich medium. Many artists have made vivid work with digital software for a long time, so there is a fertile tradition on which to build.

Moreover, as many ensembles continue to reckon with the homogeneity of their social and professional networks—on lines of race, class, gender, and other aspects of identity—experimentation in a new medium may open connections to brilliant artists who were pushed out of traditional contemporary western classical music channels by its history of orthodoxy and oppressive gatekeeping. And more facile collaboration across physical distance would have democratizing impact by alleviating the advantage of living in high-rent urban areas to be near a “scene”.

So: how are you making livestreams work for you?

[Ed. Note: Switch~ Ensemble’s next livestream is on March 5, 2021. Learn more about the event and register for it on EventBrite.]

Terrarium: A New Sphere for Growing Art

A glass ball terrarium

I began this four-part series with a vision of my dream composing job, illustrated in three vignettes. This job would be structured like J.S. Bach’s salaried position as a composer. It would capture the directness and intimacy of the village baker making fresh bread each day for his neighbors. My creations could be met with the intensity of the children running around their brand-new playground in Central Park.

As far as I know, no job exists quite like this. So I am on a mission to create it, for myself and others, via two related initiatives. The first, my email series Life in Septuple Time, seeks a new and better form of social media. The second is a new project to bring us closer to the ideal I imagine—toward a place where, as I said in my first post, “the art and its communities are woven around and within each other… where art is not separate.” Such a thing could take many forms; I hope to make it happen in a new kind of community I am co-creating, called Terrarium.

To begin, let me follow up those three vignettes from my first post with two more, to take that initial vision and to draw it more sharply, more precisely.

Vignette 1

“In the fall of 1904, a farmer was stringing galvanized wire between lines of barbed wire fence… building an elementary telephone network to connect his farm with those of his neighbors. [He] was part of a movement of telephone self-connectors, the telecom DIYers of the first decade of the twentieth century. They intuited that the telephone’s paramount value was not as a better version of the telegraph or a more efficient means of commerce [as the Bell company saw it], but as the first social technology. As one farmer captured it in 1904, “With a telephone in the house comes a new companionship, new life, new possibilities, new relationships, and attachments for the old farm by both old and young” [emphasis mine].

Typically, the rural telephone systems were giant party lines, allowing a whole community to chat with or listen to one another… Farmers would use the telephone lines to carry their own musical performances… “The opening of the new telephone line at Ten Mile,” reported the Macon Democrat, a Missouri newspaper in 1904, “was celebrated with gramophone, violin, banjo, french harp, guitar and organ Friday night.”

—Tim Wu, The Master Switch (Knopf Doubleday)

Vignette 2

In the summer of 2019, six people joined a new kind of discussion process called Terrarium. They are scientists, teachers, musicians, lawyers, engineers, psychologists, writers, each wearing multiple hats in life. They are working parents, caring for ill loved ones, studying for a competitive state licensing exam. They are in four states, three times zones, two countries. Most have never met in person and likely never will. During the weekly Terrarium cycle a wide-ranging discussion unfolds, ignited from two short pieces of writing on the topic they’ve chosen to pursue for this particular Terrarium cycle: the boundary between fake and real. One is about professional mourners in Congo who cry at funerals as a paid service. The other is about art forgery in Europe during the Renaissance.

This group is distinctive for two reasons: First, they interact entirely online, using simple tools outside the purview of Big Social Media. (In this case, Trello software.) Second, the group follows a careful process designed to de-Facebook-ize the rhythm of the discussion. There is no news feed and no ‘Like’ feature, no algorithmic advantage given to the speediest or most upsetting expressions of opinion. As a result of this counter-cultural discussion format, the conversation that emerges is slow, deep, wide-ranging, and non-polemic, despite touching easily polemicized issues like climate change, labor exploitation, forgery, and deepfakes. A sense of civil intimacy grows.

Soon, one of the musicians in the group gets an idea for a new piece of music, one that arises from this particular Terrarium group and speaks to their particular discussion: Several members of the group are concerned about climate change, an issue this particular composer does not feel as worried about as perhaps he should. Just as professional mourners do not feel sad about the specific dead person at a funeral, yet they are able to draw real emotion from a communal sense of grief; likewise this composer respects the concern about climate and is able to tap into the emotions around it. So, he realizes, this places him in a unique position: He can serve as a professional mourner for this group by writing a Lament for Climate Change. His music can help the group to experience, first-hand, one of the topics they have been discussing. The art can help them to feel what it’s like to have a professional do the mourning on their behalf.

A 2013 public domain photo of the Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park by Mike Lewelling, National Park Service via Flickr

Yup, that composer is me. This is just one example of the kind of super-specific artwork, tuned to a particular group and a particular topic, that emerges naturally within a Terrarium group. Writing this piece feels very different from any commissioned piece I’ve done. When the piece is finished I will be able to say to my small Terrarium community something deeply special: I made this. For you. I will know exactly who the ‘you’ is, why I wrote this piece for these humans, specifically. If I do a good job, the music will touch my listeners in a direct way, or at least it will deepen our discussion. If my music fails on any level I will be able to ask why, and hear honest answers. Then I’ll have the chance to rework it or try again. I will feel that I am getting closer to the kind of artistic meaning and context I’ve been longing for, and that I suspect other composers—and artists of all kinds—long for, too.

Together, these two vignettes show the special kind of close-knit, human-scale community that can be built across distances of space and schedule that are otherwise too difficult to span. The vignettes show people using basic telecommunications technology that requires no special skill to set up. They show communities free from the colonizing interference of telecommunication monopolies (like Facebook) that extrude our best human raw materials (emotion, relationship, dreaming, longing, making) and then use them to create morally vacuous products for advertisers. And in both vignettes the artistic encounters arise spontaneously; the music has a home and an audience before it is even made.

A close up image of an old wooden telephone with metal ringing bells, a speaker, and a receiver

An old telephone recently encountered by the author in rural Maine.

Let’s Put Art in Second Place… Where It Can Do Its Best Work

The key to bringing art into its most powerful role is to place art-making second in importance to other elements of the community.

One of my key goals is to move art-making down the totem pole, to place it second in importance to other elements of the community. This might sound odd, but it is, I believe, precisely the key to bringing art into its most powerful role, where it can work its magic most deeply. So in this article I will focus more on the Terrarium community itself—how it fosters connection and understanding broadly, beyond the realm of artistic creation—and less on the specific art being created within it, because if the community is working as it is meant to, then the art-making will flourish naturally.

In my work as a composer I feel a painful separation from the human beings I write for. Often, I don’t know who exactly they are, and I don’t feel sure why or even whether they need or want the music I create. It’s wonderful to fulfill commissions and sell my scores to performers; I meet great new friends and people tell me they enjoy hearing my music. Yet I feel disconnected from my listening audiences, and I long for something different. I want small communities where I can live my life in an ongoing everyday way, alongside friends near and far, new and old, learning together about the big issues facing our world—political, economic, scientific. In that context I can tune in deeply to the desires and cares of those humans and make art for them, specifically. As I described in my first post, I believe this works best when I, as artistic creator, can act in the role of servant to the served. And as I discussed in my second post, my long experience making community online tells me that a good place to do all this is on the internet, if we can find better ways of using it, well away from current forms of social media.

So this is a call to action. We don’t need to cultivate an audience, we need to cultivate communities with a larger purview than art alone. Then our music and audience can grow organically from that. In this article, I invite you to help us build this new kind of community and I propose a way to do it: Terrarium.

A Process for Small-Group Discussion

So, what is it? Terrarium is a new process for deep, high-trust, small-group discussion online, structured as a weekly practice. This is a project I’ve been co-creating with Erin Jeanette, my wife and partner in everything. In addition to conceiving many of the fundamental elements, she also came up with the name, which captures the spirit and shape of the project beautifully.

Like my email series Life in Septuple Time, which I described in my third post, Terrarium seeks smaller community, more trust. But whereas my email series is still a form of social media because it’s about broadcast—one person (me) posting outward to a group—Terrarium is, instead, about the group itself. A Terrarium group has a leader who invites the members and serves as coordinator and host. That person’s presence helps to build trust among those who may not already know one another. But the group is not about that person; it’s about the gathering of co-equal members in active dialog with each other.

A stacked hexagonal twists tessellation

A Terrarium group is six people. Their interaction creates a seventh point of energy, the fire at the center, the unique energy and collective insights of that particular group. (Image by Kerstin via Flickr)

Terrarium puts small on a genuinely human scale: Each group is just six people.

Terrarium puts small on a genuinely human scale: Each group is just six people. And unlike most social media, including my email list, the process relies on full participation from every member of the group. Here is what Erin Jeanette, my Terrarium co-creator, has to say about the reasons for this:

Group relating, even in its in-person form, is a strange and unwieldy beast. But group relating online…oh, boy! Here’s how I see it: There are some basic ways we ‘show ourselves’ to a group—we say something, we show up, we are silent, we are absent. All of these are valuable communications. In in-person groups, the latter two (silence and absence) are often as evident as the first two (speech and presence). In online relating, silence and absence are still powerful communicators, but it is difficult to notice or mark them in the same way. Consider this—if you had a backyard barbecue and one of your friends lurked outside your garden gate, staring at everyone intently but not coming in, you would notice. It would probably prompt you to ask some questions, both about that person and about you and your barbecue. Yet, on Facebook, people lurk outside your barbecue all the time—that might be the majority of what they do, in fact—but it is harder to mark this and consider its meaning and impact. Some of my contributions to this project are structural and procedural, and are motivated by my desire to invite those shadow-side communications, absence and silence, back into the purview of an explicit meaning-making process.

Terrarium works because it is highly structured. Small-group interaction online is already in the zeitgeist lately, with many people leaving newsfeed-based social media to interact more via Facebook Messenger, SMS group text, WhatsApp, you name it. Even Facebook is re-orienting its main interface around smaller groups. Although small is better, it isn’t, on its own, magic. Even small groups, without deliberate practices and methods to guide them, tend toward the sporadic and superficial. When it comes to getting deep thinking done as a group, grownups need structure. Two places where structured small-group discussion already happens on the internet are in online education (42-page rubric, anyone?) and the small online bible study groups in some megachurches. (No surprise that both arose in communities that value learning and discernment.) But these two types of small group cover limited kinds of content: the course subject matter, the scripture.

By contrast, in Terrarium the topics of discussion are wide open. A Terrarium group can tackle whatever issues or questions its members choose (for example the boundary between fake and real that we are exploring in the group this month) and they can draw material from any source. The topics that tend to interest Erin and me are those with many sides—social, political, artistic, aesthetic, scientific, ethical—all subjects that can become dangerous when some facets are negated or neglected. Or, a Terrarium group could take up a complex problem facing an organization or multi-stakeholder project. Terrarium is a vessel, ready to be filled with the ideas, the cares, and the aspirations of those in a particular group.

Terrarium’s structured process has two core aspects: There is a steady, regular rhythm to all interactions, and that rhythm is very slow. In Terrarium the communication moves, as my partner Erin puts it, “no faster than the speed of human relating.” Joining a Terrarium group means committing to one brief reading and writing task per week, for a pre-set number of weeks. We start with a prompt: two or three pieces of writing, music, or visual art that ignite a theme or topic. Then we each react and respond to each other, following a carefully laid out schedule. We follow the principle that ritual, method, structured practices—liturgies, therapy sessions, rehearsals, classes, and so on—set special conditions where special kinds of thinking and human relating can take place.

Convenience and access are also key.

Convenience and access are also key. Terrarium members can complete their reading and writing task anytime during the week, from any handy device. We are using Trello with its free, user-friendly website and mobile app, though other platforms could work too.

All the other specific details of the Terrarium process (please reach out to me to learn more) also serve to reinforce that slow regular rhythm. For example one unusual detail of the Terrarium process, borrowed from online education, is that all responses are hidden until a designated day and time each week, whereupon they all become visible to the whole group at the same moment. This gives each person the time and space to think their own thoughts without influence from whoever would otherwise have happened to post their response first.

A Spherical Conversation

So, what does it feel like to participate in a Terrarium group? To me, the conversation feels three-dimensional, spherical, like a glass terrarium; the ideas seem to spread outward in all directions. Every thought someone expresses stays present and active within the group’s consciousness. This contrasts with more typical discussions, both online and off, where a linear thread dominates, pushed forward by the more forceful personalities and the more attention-grabbing ideas, while ideas that are less immediately compelling—though often just as valuable—are left aside. How many times have you been in a conversation waiting to present your thought, and by the time you have a chance to speak the topic has moved on?

This inclusive, three-dimensional quality of Terrarium can feel overwhelming. When each set of individual responses is revealed, all six at the same moment, we find that each writer has gone in their own imaginative direction, drawing diverse ideas into the sphere. As a reader it is hard to take them all in, precisely because ideas have not become lost or sidelined; it’s not easy to keep so many things in one’s mind in order to prepare one’s own next response to the group. (There is no obligation to respond to every idea that has been raised, but I personally feel a desire to address as many as I can.)

That added effort is the point. Pondering all these ideas at once and plenty of time to do it, with no one forcing one’s attention toward one idea or another, helps seemingly disparate thoughts connect in one’s mind in unexpected ways, yielding surprising insights. Then, further along in the process, there is a mechanism for reining the conversation back in as a group, to refocus the group understanding via slow consensus-building—perhaps ending up in very different places than any of us expected.

Random pings are bad for calm, bad for focus.

Terrarium’s regular rhythm also improves focus, permission and sharing. In the current internet’s infinite web of nodes and spokes, each pulse of energy—a post, a comment, a share, an email, a blog, a news item—fires at a random moment in the day, rarely predictable. That’s why we use alerts and notifications. But those random pings are bad for calm, bad for focus. This is why I gave my email series Life in Septuple Time a steady beat in 7/8 time, with emails arriving only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, always at 6am. Terrarium likewise follows a steady, scheduled beat. You don’t need notifications when you know exactly when each communication will arrive. Then, at the moment in which you make yourself vulnerable by sharing, you already have the welcome and permission of the group. Your contribution is expected, on schedule; you are not interrupting anyone. Your reward is the true attention of the group. Rather than sending your energy out into the frenzied cacophony of a busy street, you send it into your peaceful back garden.

So. The Terrarium process cultivates depth, self examination, complexity, and nuance. It helps group members sustain equal interest in candor and civility, and to discern the boundaries between productive and destructive honesty. Terrarium brings the benefits of the small group, the ancient home base of human interaction, to the internet, to overcome the barriers of distance and schedule. It’s a structured home in which to build relationships and carry on deep conversations with anyone, anywhere.

Looking Ahead

There are a few options and questions we hope to explore as we continue. Although Terrarium is an online process, it can serve as a parallel online component for in-person groups like choirs and business teams. I believe such groups often lack a place to have certain difficult conversations, to seek understanding in ways that are not possible in person. A Terrarium group can also be closed or open—either remaining completely private to its six members, or finding ways to share insights and materials with others outside the group.

In the future, I imagine a large network of these tiny six-person groups. Terrarium can bring people together from anywhere in the world around a given topic of inquiry, whether or not they already know each other. Groups can remain very small but could be interconnected, for example via individuals rotating from one group to another, getting to know each new group deeply before moving to the next. In a large network like this, ideas and learning would gradually pass from one group to another, spreading insight and knowledge across broad swaths of society.

An Apis florea nest closeup image (showing linked hexagonal structures).

A beehive of interconnected six-sided groups. (Apis florea nest closeup image by Sean Hoyland via the Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know yet how creative artists will be paid.

Another important question is artist compensation. In my first post I left aside the question of salary, like the one Bach was paid in Weimar for his work as a composer. If art flourishes within an online community like Terrarium, I don’t know yet how creative artists will be paid. So far, it feels more like those free Friday-night telephone party-line concerts 100 years ago. But I believe that the organic nature of the art-making in Terrarium, and the felt need for art within such a community, will eventually lead, as the project expands, to the kind of funding needed to support professional art-making.

Finally (for now), if Terrarium communities exist entirely online, then the model of live encounter with art—seeing visual works, hearing aural ones—becomes complicated. Real-time musical performances over the lines can work, like those rural telephone party lines circa 1904, or radio, or today’s live-streamed concerts. Digital images can be vivid. But what kinds of music, what kinds of visual art, thrive best and most naturally on the web? Will visual art created digitally work better than reproductions of paint on canvas? Will recordings of live music satisfy? Do we need to rethink the experience of listening within such online communities, and even the kind of music that works well? There is an excellent article about this on NewMusicBox.

Why We Need This

I am on a mission to help find better ways to build community online—partly out of a sense that we need better communities, and partly from my feeling that with these better communities comes a beautiful new place where artistic creation, including musical composition, can grow. Recall that farmer in 1904:

With a telephone in the house comes a new companionship, new life, new possibilities, new relationships, and attachments for the old farm by both old and young.

Those words beautifully capture the value of the internet, too. The hope I have tried to express in these four NewMusicBox articles this month is that we, like those farmers, will roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves using the simple tools available, instead of relying on big companies whose actions are often guided by incentives other than helping regular people to form genuine connection and community.

For me, new music sometimes feels like that old farm before the telephone came along. We have the internet but we are relying on social media, which is a massive misuse of the internet. Our musical work is the gorgeous farmhouse, the barn, the silo, the fields, the brook, the smell of cut grass, sunset on the creaky porch. But it is also the abandoned wreck, the leaning structure that cannot bear its own weight, the property for which it sometimes feels that there may just be no new use.

Audiences and artists still need better ways to reach each other.

Despite all the outreach efforts we in the arts make, audiences and artists still need better ways to reach each other. Too many composers, myself included, work in abstraction and isolation, telling ourselves our work has inherent value and that an audience—by which I think we mean a community—will materialize if our music is good enough. I don’t think it works that way; that is not how artists and audiences truly connect. With many lovely exceptions, most of what we musicians in the new music community create reaches other musicians more than it reaches ‘lay’ listeners. We don’t speak often or urgently enough outward, from within the circle of our new music community, to the lay people who might value and love what we create.

A fundamental reason for this problem is, I believe, that there is currently an “in” and an “out” at all. At its most connected and vital, art is the nourishment that flows naturally and easily within an ongoing community where artists coexist with those who do not specialize in a given art, but who appreciate it. Think once more of that village baker in olden times, handing a precious piece of craftsmanship from one human to another, fulfilling a direct need: I made this. For you. This is the elemental interaction in which art plays its greatest role and shines its brightest. It is the quality I feel in writing this new piece, a Lament for Climate Change, for my Terrarium group this summer. This kind of interaction happens, of course, in everyday life in many ways. But our world of organized art-making seems to have come unglued from that core interaction.

I want to reclaim that simple act for new music. I think it’s time for us to get out our old telephone wire, rig up the internet in ways that work best for regular people, and bring the party back to this old farm. Not for a concert once in a while to hear a precious song or two, but to come and live and work and learn together every day, communing around big, vital topics that concern us all. Then, on a Friday night, we can make noise together, musicians and non-musicians side by side, all warming ourselves at the same fire.

Let’s capture and cherish whatever independence and humanity we still can, and ensure that artistic creation and encounter keep a place at the center. That’s what my Life in Septuple Time email series is about. It’s what this Terrarium project is about.

Terrarium is just beginning. If you’d like to join or lead a Terrarium group, or learn more about what we’re doing, please reach out to me. I could not be more excited to see where this can go.

I made this. For you. Anyone. Anywhere. No barriers. Everyone is welcome.

Space Matters: A Call for Community Action

Microphone on stage

Microphone on stage

Carnegie Hall. Covent Garden. The Louvre. Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame Cathedral. No doubt, venue matters. Watching baseball in Yankee Stadium is a completely different experience compared to watching a game at the local high school. A concert in Disney Hall is a different experience than at the downtown proscenium theater. Hearing a rock band in an arena is different than at the club down the street.

For thousands of years, we have built grand structures to honor what we deem most important—the temples of Greece, the Roman coliseum, the capitol building, and the concert hall. We have been consuming music in opulent European-style churches, gilded halls, and luxurious salons for hundreds of years. These settings lift up and support a musical art form built upon the shoulders of wealthy aristocrats and the social elite. These locations helped to elevate the music of the Western art tradition.

But times have changed. Symphonies now struggle to pack houses as their core demographic yearning for Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms has aged. Subsequent generations of symphony goers raised on electrified music are accustomed to the related changes in music venues—from huge sports arenas to intimate jazz clubs. In recent years, we have witnessed musicians producing concerts in even more nontraditional spaces—from suburban living rooms to dance studios. An even younger audience is increasingly more accustomed to an internet experience, and we’ve already seen live webcasting become a part of our space equation.

This quest for new spaces is valid and important but is not without challenge. The biggest obstacle for new music is the price tag. Traditional halls are extremely expensive to rent and often come with a high degree of associated labor expenses and financial risk. The typical individual composer, performer, or small organization has an uphill battle in finding traditional spaces that are affordable and available. Many of us also want to find spaces that are flexible and where a sense of intimacy can be created. To find this, we often look at multi-purpose venues that are not necessarily designed for acoustic music. This can create a wonderful atmosphere and intimacy with the performers but can be challenging when it comes to acoustic quality, location familiarity, and the need for additional equipment (lighting, pianos, percussion loading). We are also often competing for access with other groups such as the theater companies and dance troupes that typically use these spaces. Still others are crossing genre lines and performing in traditional jazz and rock venues to mixed results.

I have been getting the message for quite some time now that the new, adventurous, artistic music of today needs a new kind of concert hall that can lift up the sounds, honor the audience experience in the artistic process, and frame the work of a community of fearless music makers.   The bottom line: we need more dedicated spaces for music of the 21st century.

Nationally we are seeing this need met with a couple of different models. Venues like Le Poisson Rouge, Redcat, and National Sawdust are unique, dedicated music spaces outfitted with the latest technology that are hip, fun, and quality places to listen. But these are rare and special places. Privately owned venues provide an enterprising option for access to music but most need to make sure that the financial bottom line is always the first consideration. All too often, clubs are unwilling to take chances on new or developing shows, and we need more spaces to create access for all artists.

The artist consortium models like iBeam (Brooklyn), The Center for New Music (San Francisco), and Exapno (Brooklyn) are brilliant models that provide access to rehearsal and performance spaces, share resources, and build audiences using their collective power. Across the country we can work together to create more venues that honor the music and help audiences engage. Even now I am involved with creating a much needed physical space here in Seattle and know that much work lies ahead. Ultimately, the difficulty of pulling off this model is why it will be hard to scale this nationally—creating partnerships, finding adequate physical space, the time equity required, and the financial risk are just some of the barriers.

Every once in a while, we get a developer with vision (and often a financial incentive) to build into their plans a public performance space. The Seattle area has had several developers independently commit to taking this on and they have brought us 12th Ave Arts and Resonance Hall at Soma Towers. While these spaces are much appreciated, they are still not enough to impact the whole city, and there are few cities in the world that are experiencing the level of rapid growth and development that Seattle is. What more developers need is an incentive and a mandate.

Nationally, 28 of our state government’s have a Percent for Art program that funds public art at a percentage of the total cost for all new federal building projects. Many municipalities also have city ordinances that require new buildings to spend a percentage (usually around 1%) on art for the public benefit. We must work together as advocates to demonstrate the importance of contemporary performing space as well and find a way to sell the need for such support to a larger public.

Our formal symphony venues will continue to honor the standard Western European repertoire of the past, but we have grown beyond the 19th century-style hall. Our cities are changing rapidly and it’s time to pick up the cutting-edge contemporary performance space as a platform to honor the values of our society in the same way we continue to fund libraries in a digital age. With our collective action, I think it is easily within our grasp to begin to create a new kind of concert hall for the 21st century—bringing in new audiences, inspiring new generations through art and music, and building stronger communities. This is doable. This is my call to action.

Creating Points of Entry Into Opera Through Video

streaming opera icons

A love of opera can be cultivated through unconventional, video-based viewing experiences.

In my previous column, I argued that making more films of contemporary opera performances available to the public, particularly in the form of streaming video, is important for the future of the art form. This week I consider specifically how video can act as a pivotal force in creating points of entry for people who have little prior interest in or experience with opera—new works and classics alike. I’ll conclude with a discussion of implications for educational media, illustrated by a description of my research and design work on a proposal for multi-platform, mobile-augmented opera viewing experiences.

Opening Doors to Discovery

Much has been written about simulcasts of live operas streaming to movie theaters. I think they’re an enjoyable alternative to live opera and one way to make opera available to more people. Unfortunately, at least some of these programs don’t appear to be attracting new audiences to opera to the extent that one might hope, drawing instead on many of the same viewers who would attend live performances. A survey by English Touring Opera indicated that such screenings will not necessarily generate new audiences for opera and may even lead viewers to choose simulcasts over live attendance.

Even so, I’d like to suggest that the full potential for filmed opera more generally as an avenue through which to generate public interest in the medium has yet to be fully appreciated or fully exploited. Creating viewing opportunities in homes and other informal environments may be one of the keys to making films of opera even more accessible and appealing than attending a simulcast in a movie theater, which requires a higher degree of interest and motivation to begin with. Such experiences provide a setting conducive to discovery and learning, which could open doors for people who’ve not yet stumbled upon that performance of an opera that grabbed their interest and changed their perspective.

My own earliest memories of moments when I felt strongly connected to opera—moments that cemented my interest in this medium and have led me to pursue it as both a consumer and a creator—revolve around films of live opera on DVD. As a teenager, I would curl up in the living room and watch and re-watch The Metropolitan Opera’s 1990 films of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen or the 2002 film of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, among others—all of which I’d checked out from my small local library on Long Island through inter-library loan. Fast forward a couple years and you’d find me spending hours in dimly lit Firestone Library in the basement of New England Conservatory, consuming Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles or rare European DVDs of the better part of Janáček’s operatic oeuvre with fascination and admiration.

(On a related note: After living for several years in New York and Boston, two of the country’s best cities for the arts, I’ve still never had the opportunity to see live productions of many of these favorite operas. Opera companies’ pursuit of popular programming choices, along with the inherent limitations of how many works can be produced in any given season, are yet more reasons why having access to archived filmed operas can be so important!)

By exploring the world of opera on video, I was able to seek out the repertoire that spoke most directly to me—which was made possible by having a vast catalog to choose from and being able to watch older productions “on demand” (in the cases mentioned above, through libraries). Additionally, I was able to enjoy these works with the convenience, focus, and immediacy that a domestic or at least semi-private environment affords. Furthermore, access to films gave me the ability to watch the same pieces repeatedly, which enabled me to develop sensitivity to subtleties of singing and performance, the role of music in drama, and an overall familiarity with a work that a one-off experience of even the most wonderful live performance could not provide, nor could an audio recording without the visual components of staging. In short, I got to know these filmed performance in the same way that you might know your favorite album or movie.

Opera videos provided the “way in” I needed to become a fan, which led me to pursue live opera performances and eventually to compose opera myself. Now I’m looking for ways to help more people find their way in, too.

opera word cloud

The stories and emotions expressed in opera are universal.

Applying Educational Design: Opera Connect

During my recent graduate studies at New York University in educational media, I worked on Opera Connect: a user experience design for social, technology-guided opera viewing experiences that create points of entry into opera for underserved audiences. This project awaits development, as well as more extensive prototyping and user testing, but I offer a description of it here to demonstrate one potentially effective approach to using films of live performances to engage viewers who have little-to-no prior experience with opera. (An expanded version of the following research and design narrative is available on my website, as is a full write-up on the project detailing research sources and methods.)

The fundamental premise for Opera Connect is that stories and emotions expressed in opera are universal: therefore, more kinds of people should have access to learning experiences that foster an appreciation of opera. My first step in approaching this challenge was 1) To identify my target audience—primarily (but not exclusively) adults aged 18-35, who are not already knowledgeable about opera and who may be racial minorities and/or relatively low income—by examining which demographics are underserved by existing opera and opera film programs (an in-depth survey of audiences for The Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD was a key source); 2) To begin to understand the needs, interests, and experiences of my target audience with regards to arts attendance; and 3) To examine some of the major products and research in the area of engaging new audiences for opera and classical music. This process involved conducting several one-on-one interviews and an online survey with prospective users. Principles from established learning theories further informed my design.

Everything I observed about my target audience, the successes (and potential pitfalls) of existing programs and products, and the work of learning theorists, suggested to me that effective educational media for creating points of entry into opera would bring opera viewing into familiar, socially-oriented settings, aid users in finding the relevance of opera to their personal interests, and provide subtle-yet-effective guidance to help inexperienced viewers orient themselves to the art form and to interpret and contextualize what they are seeing and hearing.

Opera Connect mobile prototype

Cohen’s Opera Connect mobile prototype in action. Production photograph from The Metropolitan Opera.

In response to this need, I proposed a multi-platform experience bringing films of opera performances into homes and public spaces and augmenting them with a “second screen” mobile app, facilitating learning and generating opportunities for social interaction around the performance’s content. Additional features, such as coupons and local performance listings, would potentially encourage ongoing engagement and long-term impact.

With Opera Connect, audiences would either attend events hosted in nearby bars, schools, museums, theaters, or other public spaces, or download a “Party Kit” to use at home with friends, which would include party games and thematic food and drink menus relating to the opera’s plot. (This last touch was inspired by Radiolab’s delightful story on Ring Cycle super-fans.) In both cases, the experience would center around a library of streaming films of live performances, accompanied by a mobile app that delivers real-time updates (available to whatever degree the user wishes to consult them) that provide minimal, but substantive, context: plot and character summaries, background on theatrical design and direction, and details about the music, all of which would include an interactive glossary for character names and opera-specific terminology. Users would then be able send these annotations to each other during viewing, which would hopefully give rise to discussion.

One could argue that all of the above fundamentally misrepresents the experience of seeing live opera. While that may be true, it also seems evident that merely exposing people to opera will not always be sufficient to generate a meaningful, abiding connection to the art form. I was more fortunate than many to have seen a couple of live operas during my childhood, but those experiences did not stimulate serious ongoing interest. Apart from a maturation of taste that came with age, discovering my interest in opera was, I firmly believe, largely dependent on being able to access operas through home video in the ways I described above. This is part of why I feel so strongly that the many people who may be unmotivated or unable to seek out library loans of obscure DVDs from twenty-odd years ago, or to spend their time hunting around the internet to further understand what they are hearing and seeing, still deserve to have opportunities for discovering opera that truly meet them where they are. Providing people with tactful educational guidance and engaging viewing contexts can only help them to form those all-important personal connections to opera that will hopefully, eventually, motivate them to seek out opera in its purest, un-moderated forms.

New Music for Learning

music and learning

Tools of the Trade. Photograph by Nell Shaw Cohen.

Poetry. Physics. Sculpture. Politics. Economics. Television. Botany. Weather. Through music in its myriad forms, composers have illuminated ideas drawn from these topics and countless others. In such works, listeners are provided with emotionally impactful learning experiences that may live in their memories long afterwards. And, by interpreting music through ideas, listeners may even have experiences of this music that are more enriching, rewarding, and personally meaningful than they would have without extramusical context to engage with.

In my four-part series of articles, I’ll be exploring some of the possibilities for creating new music as a catalyst for learning. I’ll seek to demonstrate why the connections between music and learning shouldn’t only be a topic of interest for scientists or educators, but something that composers, performers, and presenters should acknowledge and, in some cases, actively apply to their work.

To begin, some overarching premises and principles regarding new music for learning:

Emotion, Learning, and Music: Cognitive Reality, Creative Imperative

Emotion and learning are intimately and integrally connected. Cognitive scientists have defined “learning” as the process of committing new information to long-term memory (see Mayer’s Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning). According to the research of Gordon H. Bower, among others, emotions can help us to create and reinforce long-term memories as well as aid in recollection. Schema theory (developed by Bartlett, Minsky, and Rumelhart) describes how these long-term memories constitute our individual and collective knowledge, conceptual understanding of the world, and the very formation of our identities and perception of what is meaningful or relevant to us.

Music can evoke strong emotions and create indelible impressions, which are closely attached to the context of music’s hearing. Anyone who enjoys film, TV shows, or opera, for example, intuitively knows that music can cause one to make strong emotional connections to narratives, characters, and places, or form powerful associations with concepts and ideas.

The importance of emotion in learning, and music’s emotional impact, are two of the key reasons why I think that music has enormous potential—a potential that, I would argue, hasn’t yet been fully investigated by musicians—to facilitate and catalyze learning experiences. (I refer here to “learning” in the broadest sense, not restricted to academic education.)

I propose an approach to creating new music for learning, which is distinct from the established strategies for integrating existing repertoire and concepts from music into conventional forms of education. Certainly, much work has been done within music education itself to explore the manifold benefits of music making for learning and many aspects of personal development (e.g., the inspirational achievements of El Sistema). There is also a strategy in humanities teaching of bringing historical music into interdisciplinary curricula to provide deeper context to historical and cultural study (e.g., listening to an excerpt from Der Freischütz as part of a curriculum on Romanticism). Then there is, of course, the traditional function of song as a mnemonic device (“The Alphabet Song”), or even the use of acoustical phenomena as a tool for conceptual understanding in math or physics (my personal favorite example: the 1959 Disney film Donald in Mathmagic Land). Not to mention the centuries of music created for spiritual education within worship contexts.

While I do not question that the above may be effective and worthwhile educational strategies, I’ve personally been most compelled by questions and imperatives speaking more directly to composers, performers, and advocates for new music. What kind of musical experiences most effectively facilitate learning? What can we do, through the composition and presentation of new music, to work towards this goal? In what ways can listening to music make extramusical concepts more meaningful, memorable, and relevant? Conversely, how does extramusical content help the audience to form stronger connections to the music? And, taking a step back, how can the above help us to make better music overall?

The Impact of Context on Hearing

Some readers would probably debate whether it’s even possible for music to contain intrinsic meanings or associations beyond music itself. My personal theory is that experiences of music are entirely subjective and will inevitably vary on a person-to-person basis, but that there are concrete approaches—to the creation of the music itself, as well as its context of presentation—that composers, performers, and presenters can take to provide compelling opportunities for the audience to make rewarding connections between music and extramusical content. All of this requires a certain degree of attention and participation on the listener’s part, of course, but I think that artists and presenters bear the burden of responsibility to make such experiences readily accessible to a willing listener.

Many associations can be evoked through the application of certain musical devices (think Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony or Strauss’s tone poems). Along those lines, I’m personally extremely interested in using purely musical elements such as form, timbre, pitch, and rhythm, to evoke a sense of “place.” But consider also the way in which merely the title of a work can affect its hearing. Extend that effect to the many aspects of music’s presentation—the performance venue; text presented in conjunction with music, whether through speech, or digital or printed media; the visual components of the performance; experiences provided directly before and after the music; and so on. You might begin to imagine the impact that an alliance between artistic intention, musical content, and context of listening can have to bring forth images, ideas, associations, and narratives for listeners—even in the case of music that may be purely instrumental and lacking an overt program.

Members of A Far Cry perform Cohen's The Course of Empire

Members of A Far Cry perform Cohen’s The Course of Empire for string quartet at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2011. Photo by Nell Shaw Cohen.

For example, on two occasions I’ve sought to enrich audiences’ appreciation of a series of paintings through the presentation of concerts in museums where the artworks were on display. These concerts, which featured chamber music I’d composed inspired by the paintings, were presented in the context of: a brief speech I gave introducing the music’s connection to the art; a printed program note; video interviews with museum curators about the art, clips from which were screened as part of the program and/or provided on a mobile-optimized website created for the event; images of the paintings projected onstage during the entirety of the performance; and, of course, the opportunity to see the “real thing” in the gallery before and after the concert.

Probing music’s potential to facilitate learning is a goal I’ve pursued primarily through presentations outside of—or building on—conventional concert contexts. These have included music within interactive media, music within theatrical or multi-disciplinary presentations, music with video projections, and so on. Utilizing music as a platform for exploring extramusical ideas can also bring contemporary concert music into varied circumstances—whether in museums, schools, community centers, or simply on the Internet—for diverse audiences who may or may not have prior interest in new music, or any classical or concert music at all. The audience at the aforementioned museum-based concerts did not, for the most part, consist of regular new music concertgoers. The majority of them were drawn to these concerts by publicity related to special exhibit openings and the promise of an event presented in connection with the art.

While my museum events seemed to have been successful at piquing the audiences’ interest in both the artworks and the music, they represent just one possible approach: the tip of the iceberg of what may be possible to accomplish through new music events designed to facilitate learning.

Composers as Intellectuals

When I was a teenager, one of the reasons I chose to pursue composing music as my primary artistic path was because it was a medium through which I could envision myself exploring all of the evolving ideas, topics, and realms of experience that would come to fascinate me over the course of my life—whether it’s the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, Yosemite National Park, or Medieval literature. Through composition, I could bring everything into the fold.

I know there are others with similar motivations to mine. So, consider the potential for more composers to adopt the role of “public intellectual” through learning-oriented music. Many of us are passionate about using music to further the visibility of ideas and subject matter that we feel are worthy of broader appreciation and awareness. Since composers are typically curious and intellectually multi-faceted people, why not do everything we can to push these inclinations to their fullest realization and really hone in on utilizing the creation of new music as a positive and proactive force for broadening the intellectual engagement of a larger public?

In my next three articles, I’ll explore how these principles of music created as a catalyst for learning may be applied within two areas which I’ve focused on in my own work: music inspired by visual art, and music inspired by nature, landscape, and place—which I call “Landscape Music.”

In the meantime, please share your thoughts. Has an experience with music ever helped you to better understand or appreciate an idea, a realm of knowledge outside of music itself, or some other aspect of life? Have you observed this happening for others? What elements of the musical content and/or its presentation do you think made that experience particularly effective? And, if you’re a musician, have you sought to facilitate your audience’s learning through your music?

Nell Shaw Cohen


Nell Shaw Cohen is a composer and multimedia artist based in Brooklyn, New York. She is a 2015-17 Composers & the Voice Fellow with American Opera Projects and the founder of Landscape Music, an online publication and affiliated Composers Network. As an educational media producer and user experience designer, she also creates unique videos, multimedia installations, and interactive media. Learn more at nellshawcohen.com.


Whose Job Is It To Teach Audience Experience?

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.

— Orson Welles

Orson Welles was addressing cinema as the art which becomes a social act, but his philosophy is no less true for classical music performance. At every step in our education, musicians are taught to rigorously train our understanding of technique, history, and theory. Many walk away with diplomas convinced that technical mastery is synonymous with the pinnacle of musical achievement. But despite this cultural emphasis on precision, there are thousands of displays of high-caliber technical skill that do not speak to us emotionally and do not fully convey the composer’s intent. There is more to musicianship than technical chops.

Inspired by Welles, I’d like to add my voice to the call for our community to pursue a successful audience experience as a priority on par with technical skill. When we perform with care for the holistic audience experience as well as care for the composer’s works, we can create a “social act” that is akin to magic. Audiences experience that magic when all performance elements align in the liminal space. Rigorous study is the pre-requisite for magic along with a thorough understanding of the perceptional foundations that underpin audience experience.

The audience comes to see themselves.

In order for us, as the actors, to successfully create magic and wonder, the audience must also be ready to suspend disbelief and jump into the experience with open eyes and ears. So, whose job is it to teach “audience experience” and create the performances and events that feel breathtaking?

First and most importantly, it starts with a musician’s duty to be a teaching artist. We have a plethora of opportunities to be advocates among our peers by helping to create a culture of curiosity within any ensemble in which we perform. Beyond our peers, we have the opportunity to pass on our vocation in a structured teaching environment, and it is there that we can be most effective.

I know firsthand how difficult it is to get beyond the technical skills we need to teach when we only have an hour per week (or less!) with each student. Eric Booth’s “Law of 80%” espoused in The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible: Becoming a Virtuoso Educator reads, “What you teach is who you are.” Are you devoted to being interested, curious—even captivated by your student musicians and the music they create? Regardless of the age or experience of your pupil, are you actively invested in how your charge is experiencing the music they and their peers are making?

As teachers, we know we are only a part of our student’s musical education. Our students spend a limited amount of time with us, so we should all aim to emphasize the “why” along with the “how” at every single stage of musical development. Teachers and teaching artists can create classroom plans, structure private lessons, and craft events and performances that require our students to study deeper engagement with all types of audiences. We can also encourage our students to be better audience members themselves. We teach our students to become part of the “social act” when they realize that listening is less about whether they “like” a piece of music than whether they can find something interesting or fascinating about the musical work. We must go beyond, “What do I want my students to know?” to asking ourselves, “What do I want my students to do with what they know?”

The job of teaching audience engagement extends to the other side of the fourth wall, too. We need to provide honest and constructive feedback on performance regularly. This is like user testing for your next performance. The idea is to gain insight from people with more experience by asking the right questions. The experience is not over when you tear down and leave the performance hall. It is over after you have had a chance to find out what worked and what didn’t from your perspective on stage and those in the audience whom you trust. You want to find out whether your listeners made a personal connection. If they did, they will come back for more. If they did not, they probably won’t. Audience feedback allows the performer and presenter to respect the various entry points and pathways the listener takes with the music.

If magic is the experience of a result without awareness of the process, arts organizations are in the business of magic. It is so challenging to cross all the t’s on a strict budget in our world, but it doesn’t exempt us from creating magic. Let your organizational benchmarks be measured against similar world-class experiences not just the dollar values. Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin in “Making Sense of Audience Engagement” define audience engagement as “a guiding philosophy in the creation and delivery of arts experiences in which the paramount concern is maximizing impact on the participant.” As arts organizations we must cherish our role in making the concert space a place of magic and pass on that love to our artists, interns, and colleagues.

It’s our job as musicians to nurture the audience. How do inexperienced musicians know how to do any of that without being taught? It is our job as arts administrators to care for our audience beyond their role as donors and ticket buyers. We must teach our colleagues and interns to raise more than funds. We need to raise our audience. As experienced audience members, we need to provide feedback regularly. Finally, it is our job as teachers in all facets to radicalize and actualize our students to understand the “why” and not just the “how” of making music for others.

2006: Walk Right In, Sit Right Down

NewMusicBox @ 15 logo
A chair is a terrible thing to waste, and in 2006 any and all vacancies were weighing heavily on our minds.

It’s not that we didn’t already know we had an audience problem, but we couldn’t fundamentally agree on what the root cause actually was. Could it be the Monty Python-worthy stagehand sketches being enacted in our concert halls? Would it be best to run away to a more relaxed outdoor venue?
Perhaps an outright ambush was in order.

Venue was a central variable in the new equations, that’s for sure, and long-term solutions meant more than just locating a cooler landlord with a liquor license. Yet setting aside the trappings left even more essential questions on the table. Perhaps we had gotten a little too friendly with our genre neighbors and were diluting the whiskey rather than expanding the guest list. Or maybe we were looking at the wrong urban role models and, with our eyes glued to the shoreline, were missing the inspiration to be found in the Heartland. It was time to play hardball. There were some tough truths to be spoken, but were we ready to hear them?
NewMusicBox homepage 2006
Or maybe this boat had already hit the iceberg and we should just make sure the monks had copies of our scores for safe keeping before our culture went up in flames. And for all those getting judge-y about Pops programs? “Thanks for sending us your fleeing concert hall patrons!” they shouted back. “Your close-mindedness will complete your downfall.”
Admittedly, all this handwringing over ticket sales was a convenient distraction from our more personal career frustrations in an industry where it’s too easy to be almost successful.

Sorry, sorry, I’m getting bleak—and we’re not even close to the economic challenges of 2008 yet! In many ways things were still the same as in years gone by. We were still exploring technology and getting giddy over the advancing opportunities for creative music making. We were still arguing over the continued existence of the Uptown/Downtown divide. We were still struggling to come up with the perfect title.

And on the up side, we were singing our own songs and singing them proudly! (But only once we had legally cleared permission to set the text, of course.) Big bands and small electronics were turning ears and inspiring composers. Keeping things fresh and optimistic, the whippersnappers were reporting in on their first experiences with major orchestras. Colin Holter began graduate school and took us along for the ride. He would write a weekly column for the next six years (right up to his doctoral dissertation defense) and poke sticks into a number of beehives during his tenure, but he would never miss a deadline.
Not. Once.

Audience Cultivation In American New Music

“Isn’t it amazing, that we can all sit in the same room together…and not understand each other?  It could only happen in America!” —Richard Pryor


Historically, new music has sought to confront general audiences with unexpected sounds and forms.  The present, however, sees the milieu of new music splintered into factions, each with its own loyal but marginal audience. One is more likely to find these groups at odds with one another than in dialogue, and many groups congratulate themselves for being the most marginal or esoteric. These divisions within the new music community foreclose on its original mission of confronting traditional audiences, as the factionalized groups that most new music now attracts already support and expect the work in question. All of these groups believe that they have meaningful formulas for creating provocative work, but what good is that work if no one outside the communities where it is generated has access to it?  In order for new music to remain a meaningful category of cultural production, it requires successful strategies for cultivating newer and bigger audiences.

While often used to refer to the experimental within the world of classical music, the term “new music” can be more broadly applied to any music that employs innovative, unexpected sounds or forms with the intention of challenging audiences to examine their assumptions about music, performance, and the consumption of musical experiences. When approached so broadly, new music is vast and hugely varied, but the central division within the array of new music practices is that between new music that is practiced in institutional settings and new music that does not receive institutional support, corporate sponsorship, or financial backing from investors.  The latter creative communities of practice often operate off the grid and, at times, outside of the law.  I will refer to these two areas of practice as “institutional” and “DIY,” respectively.  This classification is necessarily reductive, as there are many groups and individuals that embody hybrid forms of new music practice. Nevertheless, integrating these modalities remains difficult, and dominant traditions within new music lean toward one style of practice or the other. Similarly, each constituency represents a strong but discrete audience base—the concert-going, classical-music-based community, and the DIY community, which is aligned with band culture. This bifurcation suggests that the divide is of special relevance when considering the project of audience cultivation for new music in America today.

Current engagement with audience cultivation often finds expression in terms of collaboration and dialogue, not only within respective communities, but also between them. Audience cultivation strategies centered on cross-communal new music programming are often developed around a set of axioms, which may best be expressed as follows:

  1. The music of multiple new music communities, though touted as different from one another, actually has a lot in common.
  2. Each new music community has its own audience.
  3. The composite of all new music audiences, though never manifested as a single audience, would be bigger than any one new music audience.
  4. Collaboration between multiple artists from diverse new music communities will lead to a bigger audience for all new music communities.
  5. This will happen because collaborative programming will lead to a combining of multiple new music audiences.
  6. Bigger audiences for new music mean greater impact of progressive ideologies as mediated by the music in question.

These axioms carry theoretical weight, but despite the prevalence of this thinking—visible in the programming of many new music presenting organizations—the super-audience promised by such a collaborative spirit is not materializing. Even in New York, a veritable hot bed of collaboration and dialogue within new music communities, audiences—communities of fans!—remain, for the most part, segregated.

For the past decade I have played in ZS, a band which has had the lucky misfortune of being resident outsiders in multiple new music communities—most notably at the fringe of the underground noise or DIY scene, while also at the periphery of the institution and the academy. Our deliberate compositional method and disposition has garnered us an air of otherness in the underground community, and the abrasive dynamic and timbre of our performances has set us apart from our classical new music counterparts. ZS has charted this course deliberately, and it has afforded us a unique vantage point which may prove to be useful in the ongoing dialogue around the cultivation of larger audiences for American new music. My aim in the following discussion is to use this vantage point to explore the various factors at play when attempting to mobilize collaborative strategies for audience cultivation.  These factors cover both the practical and social features of musical performance, as I believe it is the attachment to these specific means of creating that is at the heart of understanding why the multiple communities have a hard time becoming one audience. To form an understanding of such attachments, one must consider the community structures at play wherein specific means of creative production become useful. These considerations must be addressed if we hope to bring about lasting and increased meaning, for more people, vis-à-vis the challenging and refreshing musical content created by multiple new music communities!

Videos featuring Eli Keszler, Tristan Perich, and Patrick Higgins accompany this article. I chose to feature them because their practices as musicians, composers, and artists embody something that works with the strategies I’m presenting here. All three of these artists operate with ease in many contexts, including the institutional new music setting and the DIY.


Concert and Show

When considering the sound artifact—record, CD, mp3, etc.—the differences between classical or institutional new music and the new music produced by the DIY scene are present but not so pronounced. It is not hard to imagine someone who likes Tortoise recordings enjoying Steve Reich’s music, or a person listening to both Xenakis pieces and Wolf Eyes or Black Dice records. It is harder, however, to imagine a person who frequents Miller Theater for Steve Reich concert programs catching a Tortoise show at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. The similarities between these kinds of music are easy to notice when stripped of the social context that the performances take place in, but what can be said about listeners and the sound artifacts they consume cannot necessarily be said about concertgoers and the performance rituals they engage.

Ideally, performances are constructed frames in which, for a brief period, every detail serves to articulate something about a particular version of, and vision for, the world. Considering such details, then—how the audience is positioned, what the performers are wearing, the audience’s attitude, the atmosphere within the performance space—expresses the values of the environment in which a given performance takes place. A good place to begin is with a simple examination of terminology. The colloquial difference between classical “concerts” and noise “shows” are indicative of deeper disparities, and while similar in construction, the two questions, “How was the concert?” and “How was the show?” ask about different things. The former question is used to request an evaluation of the musical quality and content of a performance. The person who asks the latter, however, enquires about a broad range of elements: Who was there? Did it start on time or run late? How was the venue? How was the sound? Did anything crazy happen? The quality of the band’s performance and an individual’s response to the music are factors within a much larger set of elements that are at issue when describing a given show. When asked to describe a concert, details about whether Prosecco was served at intermission and whether or not you met anyone you knew are often not at issue. Rather, there is a privileging of the musical performance as the meter stick for determining the quality of a given concert.
In a classical setting, audiences must sit and be quiet. Those visibly doing something other than watching the concert are discouraged in the space where the concert is happening. The ensemble and the conductor wear uniform clothing so as not to distract from the event of the music making, and so on. Compare this setting to that of a show: members of the audience may be doing any number of things besides watching the bands—catching up with friends, consulting one’s phone, or participating loudly in the performance are all acceptable varieties of audience participation.  Regardless of preference where these settings are concerned, it is clear that there are different paradigms for audience-ship afoot in the different musical milieu in question, and these differences present clear obstacles for those attempting to combine new music audiences.


Band and Ensemble

The different expectations placed upon audiences in the social frames of “show” and “concert” are matched or even preceded by structural differences within the generative processes of different branches of new music. Where institutional new music is concerned, it is ordinarily the work of a single person, the composer, who has designed a specific musical experience for the audience to have. The content is chiefly communicated to the ensemble via sheet music, a set of instructions that expresses the musical design of the composer. While the balance of creative contribution may vary from ensemble to ensemble, it is clear that the role of the composer is the most generative, while the ensemble and conductor chiefly perform interpretive and executive labor, serving as vehicles for the composer’s content. Importantly, this division of labor is performed before the audience. The conductor stands with her back to the audience and presides over the ensemble; the ensemble is most often seated, wearing all black and performing for the audience, whom they face. Composers are often not visible but are generally identified in a printed program; if they are in attendance, they are acknowledged by the conductor and/or ensemble at the end of the performance of their work.  In this setting, there is a commitment to a lack of mystery surrounding individual contributions to a given performance; the place and role of the practitioners involved within the ensemble is clearly demarcated, and the composer’s authorship is clearly acknowledged.

Conversely, in a DIY setting, all generative mechanics of the band often lie under the hood of the band name. Whereas the ensemble divides the labor of music-making into discrete specialties and hierarchical execution, the band model is largely typified by a pervasive lateral quality. Band members act as composers, interpreters of material, and performers; every member is able to contribute to the musical content of the work being generated, and these contributions are happening constantly throughout the process of writing, rehearsing, and performing. Additionally, leadership in the band setting is often nebulous, and though a band may have a front woman or man, this is not understood to mean that they are responsible for authoring the musical material they render.
We have already noted the many differences between the concert and the show setting.  The divergent generative practices engaged by bands and ensembles serves to deepen the divide between these performance rituals—audiences at shows and audiences at concerts, though both viewing live performances of music, are consuming radically different culture products.


Audiences in Social Space

Where institutional new music practitioners disguise their bodies and individuality so that the audience may receive the design of the composer with extreme clarity, bands disguise notions of agency and authorship by not crediting work to specific individuals.  Instead, they foreground individuality in performance and group dynamics. By not calling attention to authorship and highlighting agency in performance instead, the band and the show create a different kind of space for the meaning-making practices of the audience. Audiences at shows understand that bands create the music that they play, however the audience’s focus is often not on the intentions of the band and its members, but on the audience’s own style of participation at a given show. Audience members may stand silently while the band plays, yell out phrases or sounds during or between performances, respond bodily, even throw a cup or bottle onto the stage (depending on the show you happen to be at!). The finished product of the show is a composite of the musical performance and the audience’s response.

Audiences at concerts and audiences at shows are thus not only consuming different culture products, but they are playing different roles where the construction of meaning is concerned. The decision that audiences make when they choose between attending a concert and going to a show can be couched in terms of consuming and creating. Concerts and shows are more than specific means of presenting music, they are cultural spaces where rituals of social identification are practiced and expedited. Concerts provide conditions for repose to be struck by connoisseurs, while shows create platforms for cultural actors who will shape their experience via participatory style. The idea that show-goers and concert-goers are seeking out different experiences impacts heavily upon audience cultivation where multiple new music communities are at issue. The real concern is no longer what music people are encountering, but how and where they are encountering it, and what their role is in the production of meaning while doing so. Traversing this invisible boundary is the real work of audience cultivation and expansion.


Obstacles and Best Practices

It follows, then, that those who wish to expand audiences in new music must consider what might make such different communities of listeners wish to widen their experiences and practice different methods of cultural engagement.  A good frame for an inquiry about best practices for audience cultivation is the interrogation of assumptions.  Both of the communities in question are able to manifest flexibility in prescribed areas of practice, but remain rigid where core values are at play.  In proper dialogue it is important for participants to enter their most deeply held core values as possible assumptions, and subsequently interrogate those assumptions in order to determine whether or not they are meaningful in the context of our current project of audience cultivation.  A widely held assumption about music in general is that audiences separate along lines of aesthetics.  In this essay I suggest that audiences of new music listeners separate not because of aesthetic barriers, but due to the specific mechanics through which music is created, presented, and consumed.  In order to address this point, every aspect of a musical production must be considered, not just the specific musical content being presented at a concert or a show.

Over the years I have encountered and enacted a variety of strategies for growing audiences for new music.  Some of them work, some of them don’t, a few of them are discussed below.

For the Institution

Institutions are responsible for many of the programs that pair diverse communities within new music.  This programming happens under relatively ideal circumstances, with significant financial backing, proper facilities, and cogent marketing teams representing the programming to the public.  Often this work manages to create pairings of artists that would otherwise not be “possible.”  That said, we have noted that this programming is not substantially expanding the size of the existing audience for new music.

One of the greatest assets that institutional support brings to the endeavor of audience cultivation is the ability to provide respectable fees to musicians. However, rather than being used to incentivize artists to engage in otherwise unlikely collaborations, funding may serve better if used to reward artists who engage in self-elected collaboration. By shifting the allocation of funds from the financing of unlikely collaborative projects to the support of existing collaborative projects, festivals and institutions will foster an overall valuation of cross-communal collaboration within new music.

There are many examples of large institutions opening their doors to a broad array of practitioners from the DIY underground. There are far fewer examples, however, of members of the institutional new music community coming to DIY venues and concertizing there.  Institution-based new music groups who wish to expand their audience base would be well served by performing in such settings, however familiarity with institutional support leaves many practitioners expecting to be compensated at rates which are unfeasible in many DIY situations. Of course it is possible to write grants, appeal to patrons, and lead Kickstarter campaigns in order to secure what is regarded as the required funding to make individual concerts happen, however I recommend against this. Musicians in a given ensemble being compensated at a rate that differs from that of other musicians on the bill at a DIY show creates social distance which defeats the purpose of this exercise.  Where the institutional new music practice is chiefly premised on aesthetics, methodology, and philosophical bent, the DIY scene is, fundamentally, an expression of something social, a fellowship among people, a community.  In order for the institution-based new music practitioners to cross over and gain awareness in this world, they must find a way to participate as a member of that community.  Accepting the terms of the DIY community—financial and otherwise—is one way for classical and institutional new music practitioners to expand social depths, form relationships with musicians in bands, and expand their audience base.
Unfortunately, there are often other obstacles for institution-based new music groups that would like to concertize in the DIY setting.

I have spoken with multiple new music groups for whom audience expansion is a priority, but whose hands are tied due to extreme exclusivity clauses imposed by large-scale classical presenters, or who face management and publicists resistant to the notion of concertizing for so little money and even less prestige.  This resistance is of note: it highlights that while there are many people within institutional new music for whom younger, broader audiences are of central concern, in many cases, the question of whether or not the general public likes new music is simply not of value to many involved.  Institution-based new music practitioners who are concerned about expanding audience size must do some campaigning within their own milieu if they wish to experience success in this endeavor.

Most importantly, institutional new music must bring an end, at least partially, to its most beloved practice—enforced silence.  There are many people who do not like being forced to sit still and be quiet.  This practice, and some of the other rituals endemic to the concert setting, need to be reconsidered and applied only selectively.  The performance of musical hierarchy described above is also inscrutable if not off-putting to listeners not familiar with the customs of concert music.  A more casual setting and presentation will benefit institutional new music practitioners seeking to expand their audience base. Acceptance, even valuation of these attributes when concertizing in the DIY setting is a good way to begin thinking about bringing some of that spirit to the concert setting.

For DIY Communities and Organizations

The DIY community has its own responsibility in the matter of audience cultivation, and equally as much to gain from an expanded audience for new music.  As far as communities of practice—artistic, professional, and social—go, the DIY community tends to value “openness,” that is, awareness of and curiosity about the values and practices of others. This said, there are sacrosanct core values within the DIY community around which little or no variation is tolerated. For the DIYers to participate in the cross-communal project of audience cultivation, it will first be necessary to reframe the rigid nature of these ideologies as more fluid aspirations that are shaped by the particular projects that they engage with.

Within the DIY community, there is skepticism, bordering on dislike, of hierarchical power dynamics, especially when the allocation of resources is at issue in the context of a supposed meritocracy.  It should not be hard to see why this vantage point presents difficulty for collaborations that pair DIY organizations with official cultural institutions. The DIY community places value on conducting business in a way that is transparent, lateral, and democratic, while the institutional milieu places emphasis on clearly articulated standards for excellence and cogent processes of becoming involved. These two strands have much to learn from each other—DIY communities could stand to become more cogent and efficient, while official culture organizations could imagine new ways of preserving and presenting standards that do not locate the project of determining quality and allocating funds at the top of a hierarchy. Instead, official culture organizations might look more readily to the ground level of their operations where the people most aligned with the audiences they seek to reach dwell. This mutual learning will require a softening of the DIY’s ideological position in order to facilitate dialogue.

Operating within their dislike of the edifice of power, DIY communities at times engage in subtle social maneuvering for devaluing dominant practices, often resulting in a communal habit of “becoming minor,” that is, seeking to frame any given practice as “most other” or “least dominant.” Within a seemingly homogenous community, subdivisions occur over any number of major or minor social differences—those who come from money, those who have been to prestigious schools, those who have good jobs but go to punk shows at night, those who did not attend college, those who are unemployed, those who come from familial backgrounds of little means—each splinter group seeking to become minor. Rather than fostering a broadening of social depths to include more and more cultural actors—a task we have seen is necessary for the project of audience cultivation—this practice forecloses on collaboration with entities outside of the DIY and causes discord within. The attitude of “becoming minor” is complexly associated with questions of power and privilege, but it is important to note that anyone who is in a position to be able to entertain the concerns expressed in this essay is already in the category of the extremely privileged.  Whether university professors or crusty punks who have renounced the shower and covered their hands with tattoos, we all exist within and embody the ostentatious wealth of our nation, replete with its power and influence. These assets can advance the agendas of communities of practice, and for this reason, divergent communities such as DIY and institutional organizations are well-served by identifying points of similarity and overlap rather than engaging in the factionalizing attitudes that value becoming minor.


The discussion of obstacles and best practices in this section is far from comprehensive.  It is easy to imagine further discourse on matters including the architectural space, geographic location, gender dynamics, ethnographies, or more nuanced discussion of the socio-economic dimensions of cross-communal collaboration.  My hope is that this essay will help to begin dialogue around all of these subjects and many more not named here.  Cross-communal dialogue is our first best hope for addressing the matter of audience expansion in new music.

Recently, I was on tour with ZS in Europe, where the distinction between grassroots communities of practice and institutional communities of practice is much less pronounced, and of lesser import to practitioners.  Our booking agent, a master at negotiating between these communities, informed us that the new prevalent slang was not DIY (do it yourself), but DIT (do it together).  Yes!  What an excellent and obvious evolution for our thinking about cultural musical action in the world.  As Americans, we do not have cultural homogeneity of participants in our communities of practice.  The word “American” itself connotes a lot.  However one interesting take on being American is that the designation implies that somewhere in your relatively recent past or ancestry there is “someone originally from somewhere else besides America.”  This makes the project of American DIT more compelling, and more important!  Through dialogue, the interrogation of assumptions, and by not turning ideals into expectations in the cases of our core values, new music can arrive at hybrid forms of practice, both aesthetically and in terms of mechanical production and generative practice.  These hybrid forms can lead to bigger audiences for American new music, if we are willing to do the often uncomfortable, often exhilarating work of getting to them.
See you at the performance!


Special thanks to Hannah DeFeyter for her assistance with this article.